Friday, 14 May 2010

Yorkie Notes: the condensed version of "The Gambler". Condensed like soup. Condensed like milk. Condensed like condensation.


PLEASE NOTE: If you read this version before reading the main page, the plot will be given away. Do as you will.

I have very little idea of what my online novella "The Gambler: A Shakespearean-Dostoevskyian-Reiszian take on the 2010 South Africa World Cup" is about. And I wrote it. So it hardly surprises me that the majority of the feedback I have received so far is a mixture of confusion, puzzlement, bewilderment, and beffudlement.

Image on right: Mario Question Mark from Lost Mitten

A contact at the BBC has suggested I make a filmed 'elevator pitch' for it. Other people, for example the Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, have suggested I create a synopsis. I didn't know what an 'elevator pitch' was until my BBC contact mentioned it and I read up on it at Wikipedia. I am not really sure quite how to write a synopsis either. I also note with interest from the Wikipedia entry on elevator pitches that they are used by such people as "project managers, salespeople, evangelists and policy-makers" so that puts me in august company. I also wonder whether elevator pitches can involve elevators going up and down above football pitches (elevators are lifts in English English as opposed to American English - for we are two nations separated by a common language, as Oscar Wilde put it. Or maybe George Bernard Shaw put it. Or maybe Dylan Thomas put it. Or maybe Winston Churchill put it).

Image on right: lifts on the outside of the Lloyds building (designed by Richard Rogers). Photograph from "London Weekend VII" by Esti Solana.

So what I am doing at this fifth and final section of the online presence of the novella is to create a kind of Bluffer's Guide To "The Gambler", a bit like a version of York Notes, Brodie's Notes, or Cliffs Notes. The following also contains a few hints and tips for anybody who has the ill fortune to be asked questions about "The Gambler" in an examination such as the GCSE or A-level in Britain or the Abitur in Germany or Finland should "The Gambler" ever, by some miracle, end up as part of any curriculum. Note to curriculum orchestrators: is it really fair to include "The Gambler" in a curriculum and ask students to interpret a text that the author himself doesn't really understand?

PLEASE NOTE: Some of the following points give the plot away so if you do actually want to read the work without bluffing it then please do not read on.

1) "The Gambler" is an online novella. The first two chapters are at the first website of the five. The second section, called "Rave Reviews" is a proposal for a film and computer game tie-in along with some reviews from various sources. The third section is a list of recommended reading for the World Cup. The fourth is a section that is a desperate plea for Devereux to go to South Africa to write journalism and complete "The Gambler". The fifth section is this section.

2) "The Gambler" is set in Woking, Surrey, England, Britain.

3) The central story of "The Gambler" is based on the lives of six major characters who all live in Woking. There are also some extra characters, such as Fran's female friends, who stand at the margins of the story.

4) The six major characters are Billy Lyre, whose real name is Billy Lyon; Amber Sands; Hope Sandlevowel; Julio Mendes; Johnny Le Fur and Fran 'the Flan' Flannery.

Image below: interactive Homer Odyssey site from Tin Penguin

5) "The Gambler" opens 'in medias res' or, in other words, 'in the middle of things'. This is basically the only thing it shares with "The Odyssey" by Homer. It opens just at a point where the characters appear to be about to go to South Africa for the World Cup. It then proceeds backwards, so that chapter 2 is 79 days ago and chapter 1 is 80 days ago. When I was writing the work, I didn't reflect upon why it travelled backwards in time, though I did read something by Martin Amis in "London Fields", which he almost titled "Time's Arrow", about time moving backwards that influenced my thinking. After having written it that way, I then reflected upon it and after seeing a photograph of a close friend of mine as a child it occurred to me that she looked to some extent like an old woman in the photograph, which then got me thinking about the Shakespearean seven ages of (wo)man, and then got me thinking that one of the paradoxes of human life is that sometimes babies and small children appear like old people and sometimes old people appear like babies and small children. Why that is the case, I have no idea. I am also interested in different views of time in different cultures, with some thinking that time moves forward in a linear and sequential fashion from past to present to future; others thinking that time moves backwards, others that it is cyclical, and so on. I personally offer no particular opinion on the matter - just a big question mark and a serious scratch of the head and confused facial grimace. I think questions of time might have some connection to the Taoist concept of the 'uncarved block', which might have some connection to Robert Newman's "History of the World Backwards", but I don't know what kind of connection, and beyond that I'm stumped.

6) "The Gambler" opens at a point of massive change in the personal lives of the characters, just at the same time that society in general is undergoing vast and rapid change. Billy and Hope's relationship has just ended. Both of them are at a point when new relationships are beginning - Billy and Amber, Hope and Julio. Johnny and Fran have just begun a relationship as well.

7) The story is a 21st century version of the epistolatory novel. Instead of being written in the form of letters or diaries, the characters narrate their stories and their perspectives of the world in the form of social networking entries.

8) Chapter 2 doesn't really happen. It is just a scribble. All the characters describe trying to get on a train and barely managing to do so. This is, in part, because all the characters are in a rush. This is part of the essence of the text: society is changing rapidly and the lives of the characters are too, particularly given the desperation that some of them feel (particularly Billy and Johnny) to get to South Africa for the World Cup. Things are in flux like the river of Heraclitus. Things that were quite static and solid a few years ago are suddenly flowing at what feels to the characters like an accelerating rate. The breakdowns in relationships, and the beginnings of new ones, reflect their individual and personal responses to these bigger collective and social changes.

Image on right: S.Africa postcard from the Derek Burger website

9) This sense of rush, of frenetic change, is one of the points of conflict within the story. All the characters are experiencing problems of one kind or another: conflicts between their aspirations and their realities. They dream of lives transformed in one way or another and they sense that the South Africa World Cup is a focal point of those changes in a way that they cannot necessarily express or comprehend consciously. Times of change are not always comfortable for the protagonists involved in them. But as people often say before things change, change is impossible; and after they have changed, that the change was inevitable.

10) Questions of morality and ethics crop up at times of social change and transition. Perhaps the stunning musical work of Moral, who is apparently only fifteen years old, would be an appropriate backdrop to the debates and moral mazes thrown up when paradigms shift at lightning speed. A character such as Fran is particularly troubled by the changes, although excited by them. She lives by strict moral absolutes - that nuclear weapons are wrong; that gambling is wrong; that eating meat is wrong. She has just begun a relationship with Johnny, however, and his view of ethics and morality is less fixed, more flexible, more relativistic. She fears that that relativism is really nihilism, although the embryonic love she has for Johnny suggests to her that his different way of living is not necessarily nihilistic but a different form of morality which is not necessarily inferior. She is, however, troubled in some ways by the beginning of the relationship, although deeply excited at the same time. Students in examinations might gain extra marks for mentioning a character such as Bazarov in Turgenev's "Fathers and sons" in relation to nihilism and the fears Fran has of it.

Image on right: Penguin Classics edition of "Отцы и дети (Otcy i Deti)"

11) An interesting exercise might be to compare and contrast the three relationships, all in their early stages. Billy and Amber have met and come together impulsively, without much depth to their beginning relationship. Yet here is a paradox in Billy's character: he has a constant need for stimulation, for excitement, for risk-taking, and yet already he is wondering whether he and Amber will end up married (and worrying about it). Hope also dreams of marriage with Julio, and is not worried but happy about the prospect, but does not wish to discuss it too much. Her reticence is also linked to the internet age: to what extent is privacy possible when almost everything has been rendered visible, even voyeuristic? Fran is filled with apparent fears about Johnny and the concept of him being her 'eternal flame'. For her, the question weighing on her mind is what makes a successful and healthy relationship: one where the two people are very similar and find themselves in agreement, rather like Hope and Julio, or, alternatively, one where the two people are very different (or indeed opposites as she and Johnny are)? And if opposites attract, is it healthy for them to maintain their independence and personal identities or to try to become similar? Should she, for example, try to 'convert' Johnny to veganism when he is such an avowed carnivore? Should she really become interested in football just because he is? Fran is concerned, at such an early stage, about where these boundary lines lie. Hope, in contrast, has an implicit and intuitive sense that the boundary lines in her beginning relationship with Julio have already been agreed, without having needed to be discussed.

12) Dostoevsky had to write "The Gambler" in one month in order to pay off debts. In this "Gambler", another paradox of the story is that the person out of the six who turns out to be the Gambler in question is actually Fran, who has lived her life consistently thinking that gambling is immoral since it involves exploitation and abuse (her view is that gambling is a racket, a con, since the mathematical odds are weighted so poorly against the gambler and so well in favour of the casino or bookmaker, like the coin tosses in Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"). Also she thinks that the odds on a national lottery win, which are something like 14,000,000 to 1, are not only wildly unlikely - and that people who join in lotteries are being cheated, in that the amount of money they pay in exchange for a small sliver of hope is too high an amount, but also she thinks that people should earn their money rather than simply win it through luck). And yet her relationship with Johnny has led to her spending £1,000 of her money (and she does not have much else saved up) on a bet that England will win the World Cup. In a way, she is staking part of her artistic career ahead on the England World Cup - just as, in a sense, Dostoevsky staked his future on the words that he wrote. Broadly speaking, for those interested in Enneagram analysis, Fran can be seen as being Enneagram type four - an artistic, romantic, creative, visionary identity which is capable of incredible creative work and progression but with a tendency to fall into melancholy and self-doubt. This is what has brought her and Johnny together - they are opposites attracting; Johnny does not succumb to melancholy. He finds life too interesting and vibrant to fall down any mental health rabbit warrens. Life, for Johnny, is a carousel of games, and games are fun. This is the same for Billy, though his attitude is less consciously intellectualised than that of Johnny, who writes what he rather grandiloquently calls 'dissertations'.

Image on left: Poster by Edward Linder

13) Hope and Julio's story is very different from Johnny and Fran's. Hope describes Julio in a kind of wonderment, the early honeymoon stages of a relationship that has the potential to mature like a fine wine. She is not filled with the same doubts and fears that dominate Fran's narrative or, in a different way, Billy's narrative. Of all the characters, she is arguably the one who feels the social changes and transitions at work to be positive, healthy, illuminating, and a general opportunity for personal and collective growth and harmony. Hope's narrative, although twinged with some sadness in her description of the collapse of her relationship with Billy, is filled, appropriately, with more hope than Pandora's box (or 'Elpis', as hope was personified in ancient Greece). Or Adrian Mole in his approach to Pandora Braithwaite M.P. in the writing of Sue Townsend. No matter how bad things get, Hope always hopes for the best, always attempts to see the glass as half full rather than half empty, and always tries to look on the bright side of life like Monty Python.

14) One of the key ways in which the characters differ is in their attitudes to risk. At the heart of the story, therefore, there is a tension between the two major approaches to risk - that of gambling on the one hand and insurance on the other. The former involves risk maximisation, the latter risk minimisation; the former, psychologically, is based on the hope of victory, the latter on the acceptance or assumption of loss. Mathematically, the two are two sides of the same coin. A character such as Billy lives his whole life immersed in risk-taking activities of one kind or another. A character such as Hope has much more of a propensity to minimise risk. In one way, their break-up arises from the gulf between their two tendencies becoming as large as the Grand Canyon and, therefore, no longer sustainable.

Image on right: "The Birth of Venus" by Sandro Botticelli

15) Out of the six characters, only four directly narrate - Billy, Hope, Johnny and Fran. The other two characters, Amber and Julio, are both foreigners in Britain (although it is not clear at all from Billy's narrative where Amber comes from - he mentions Germany and New Zealand but she may as well come from Venus, or may as well be Botticelli's Venus, for all the sense he makes on the matter. Billy is in such a rush that one of the features of his narrative is a tendency to jump from one topic to the next in a stream-of-consciousness fashion - a term originally created by William James, the brother of Henry James. In part, this tendency has probably been exacerbated in Billy by the stimulation and information explosion of the internet age). From the authorial perspective, the fact that Amber and Julio are reported in the third person rather than given a first person voice is not a comment on anything such as the appropriate or healthy level of immigration or emigration in a country; it is, instead, an implicit comment on the way that people who live in a different country from their home one can often feel alienation and that integration or assimilation require hard work and patience, particularly when the voices of those people are muted or kept hidden. As an undertow to the text, there is an implicit view that a cosmopolitan, open, melting-pot society is healthy - but that such a society takes a great deal of work to create. From an authorial perspective, however, I am not attempting to be too polemical or didactic on such matters. It is not my task as a writer to tell people what to do or what to think.

16) Although they do not mention it directly, under the surface of the story there is a sense of time passing. All the characters feel a sense of rush because they feel the need to make up for lost time - a variation on what Proust called 'temps perdu'. In terms of Aesop's fables, Billy and Fran are closest to the hare and Johnny and Hope are closest to the tortoise. The first two are worried that time is passing rapidly and are trying to cram as much as possible into their lives as quickly as possible. With Johnny and Hope there is a calmer sense that the slower they go, the faster they go. Both Amber and Julio also seem closer to tortoise than hare. A completely unrelated piece of wordplay that might gain a student an extra mark in a public examination is the proximity of the word the Romans used for their tortoise military formation (testudo) with the Japanese word for railway (tetsudo) or, literally, 'iron road'. I have just discovered, as well, that tetsudo is a Tibetan martial art. One of the central essences of the story is the fact that while football resembles war it emphatically is not: it is the structuring of conflict into a form that is non-violent, where violence is specifically against the rules.

Image on left: Takanawa tetsudo by Hiroshige

17) L.P.Hartley wrote in "The Go-Between" that "the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there". The other time element within the story is the code of impermanence that Billy, Johnny, Fran and Hope are all trying to live by, although they all interpret it in very different ways based on their own personalities and cognitive frameworks. In its essence, this is based on the idea that the past and future do not exist apart from as ideas in our own heads - that our only existence is that of the present moment. Trying to live by this idea has, however, created tensions in the lives of the characters: one of the most obvious is that of Billy's confused interior monologue, where he tries to justify the fact that he is starting a new relationship with Amber and at the same time trying to cope with the idea that he is still in one with Hope. There is, in him, a massive tension between monogamy and polygamy and, of course, polyandry, which he would instantly reject - hence his ambivalence towards polygamy. In reality, for both Hope and Billy, the relationship is already in the past, and has no existence in the present moment, though they have not yet articulated this situation to each other. Billy's narrative is also a troubled one because he is trying to wrestle with the amoral or nihilistic elements of his risk-taking approach to life and his constant need for new sensations and materialistic 'hits' and 'kicks'. He is not an amoral character, however, which leads to him being 'caught in two minds' and deeply ambivalent about the way that he is living. He is also a deeply addictive personality and like all addictive personalities his transition towards growth, development and a healthy integration of all his disparate elements into a unified personality must come through turning the addictive pattern towards constructive rather than destructive activities. Billy is less advanced on such a path of integration than a character such as Julio, which is a large part of why Hope has left the relationship and begun a new one with Julio. On the other hand, Amber has been attracted to Billy precisely because of his addictive personality, his impulsiveness, his risk-taking - which she sees as dynamic and exciting and a potential way out of the routines of her life and her job. Although Amber's character is as yet only really foreshadowed, she has a profound sense that Billy is funny. It is that humour that first attracts her towards him when he comes into her travel agency and spends yet more credit card money on tickets to the South Africa World Cup. For Billy this is the difficulty of his interpretation of impermanence: it is a curious version of the monetarist economist Milton Friedman's idea that we make short-term economic decisions, for example over the amount of money that we spend, on an underlying projection of our long-term salaries (the permanent income hypothesis). For Billy and his generation, that idea has its dangers given the potential lowering of long-term prospects - unless of course Billy is right that the doom and gloom in society at the moment about long-term prospects is exaggerated and that he will actually earn a lot more in the long-term than people in general might think. It is not clear whether Billy is thinking rationally, and sensibly maximising his 'utility', which is one of the major assumptions of classical economics, or whether he is deluding himself and relying on false emotions, particularly in his belief that he will be picked up by a newspaper or magazine to be a roving reporter at the South Africa World Cup, like a variant on Evelyn Waugh's character William Boot in "Scoop". In essence, the result of his gambles will be the proof of the pudding, and will determine whether the relationship between him and Amber, which is so far very superficial and based very much on instant physical attraction, has longevity or is just another of a long series of short-term gambles and fads that he is prone to. Billy is, therefore, at a massive crossroads - whereas it seems more clear that a relationship like Hope and Julio is destined to be solid and secure in the long-term. It also seems clear that despite Fran's moaning about her relationship with Johnny, that their prospects are strong in the long-term - though this is, of course, debateable. Yet Fran's complaints about Johnny have a playfulness to them, rather in the way that the initial antagonistic banter between characters in Shakespearean comedies, such as "Twelfth Night", is really a sign that those characters will eventually come together and stay together. Under the surface of the story, the author's intention is that despite all the flaws and peccadilloes they have, the characters should end up happy - the essence of comedy and its ground in the ancient Greek idea of 'eros' (Ἔρως) and erotic love, which is one of the different forms of love such as agape, philia and so on.

Image on right: "Scoop" by Evelyn Waugh (Penguin edition)

18) Out of the various different categorisations of narrative, this is a comedy. It starts with a happy ending: a series of new relationships which, like all relationships, have their tensions and problems but which also promise growth, development, joy, happiness, creativity and dynamism for all the characters involved. Summer is a good time for comedies, like Mike Leigh's "Nuts in May" or, indeed, the nursery rhyme "Nuts in May". It is also a good time for World Cups!

19) The story is written hypertextually. This means that it contains lots and lots of links to other websites, other documents, other texts. Students in examinations might gain extra marks if they watch Douglas Adams's 1990 BBC documentary "Hyperland" and mention people such as Ted Nelson or entities such as Project Xanadu. Other students might score highly for pointing out that there ain't nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes) - that hypertextual writing goes back beyond computerisation. One of the major sources of inspiration for me in that sense is the Jackson and Livingstone Fighting Fantasy books that I loved as a boy, which seemed to adumbrate cyberspace. An interesting examination question might be: "To what extent does the fact that the story is written in a hypertextual way undermine the integrity or realism of the characters?" Another question might be: "To what extent does the fact that the story is written in a hypertextual way enhance or increase the integrity or realism of the characters?"

Image on left: screenshot from the "Hyperland" documentary

68) Given that there are six central characters, extra marks in public examinations might be awarded to characters who mention Pirandello's "Six Characters in search of an author".

71) Extra marks in public examinations might be gained by pointing out that while the text of "The Gambler" is composed of five sections, that might in some way be related to fact that Feng Shui has five element. Astute students might draft in the quintessence (which might be ether or, alternatively, a jazz album by Bill Evans). Students who mention the film "The Fifth Element" might or might not get marks depending on examination schemes. That is nothing to do with me. I am just a writer.