There is always this gamble when writing fiction in a contemporary setting. Any political, popular culture, or specifically topical references you make in the writing are going to ‘date’ it very easily. Technology, for example, or the economy – who can predict the next revolution or crash? Things move so fast. Or they did.
I was starting to rework and old draft of something with a contemporary setting when this happened. The pandemic. The book already referenced Brexit, in passing. If you have lived in the UK in the past three or four years and have something contemporary set there, it’s been hard not to. But this?
What to do now?
I could shift the action forward by, say, a year—have in mind a setting that’s summer 2021 rather than 2020, perhaps. But how do we know how long the effects of this are going to last – indeed, even what those impacts are going to be on our lives? Are the characters permitted to travel? Would they have job security? And then, even in our most optimistic scenarios, there will be the aftermath, the rebuilding.
Another option is the ‘parallel universe’ one. Just as some of the soap operas, at least here in UK, found themselves caught out (understandably) by the pandemic, the characters blithely continuing their lives out and about in the spring-time streets, pubs, shops, workplaces, so one could create a setting where the virus never struck. But that doesn’t work, does it. One of the most significant global events of recent times never occurred. Easy as that. Tra-lal-la!
Or move the time setting back a year? Hmn. No. Because one cannot un-know. And what you know about the future of your characters, at least anything of significance, will affect their present. Even without a truckload of ungainly foreshadowing.
No doubt there will be, before long, novels that depict these current events (Love in the Time of Covid?). Perhaps a state-of-the-nation work. Just as, for example, Ali Smith penned a series of Brexit / Post-Brexit novels (her Seasonal Quartet), beginning with 2017’s well-reviewed Autumn and due to end this year with Summer. Yet others will take the trauma as a catalyst or turning point for their characters. Some may be taking notes as we speak, in order to capture the mood, the now. Others still may find be finding writing therapeutic.
I am aware, of course, that all this is a tiny symptom of a wider condition. A life where we no longer have future certainties into which we can plant the next psychological foot, and the one after that. All of which gives us a drifting uncertainty. We may say that such ‘certainty’ is, was always, a mental construct. Was always a set of dreams, ifs, and what-ifs.
We had our plans though, could picture ourselves there – there at that graduation, wedding, birthday celebration, on that trip, planning that promotion, house move. Now when we look ahead, the scenarios of possibility multiply in our minds until the entire projection fragments and floats away.
Grief and emotional loss do that: they make the future hard, often impossible, to imagine. This will, sadly, come to most of us at one point, as individuals. But en masse, like this, internationally, the dislocation? It highlights how fortunate we have been here, a relatively wealthy nation, after seventy-five years of territorial peace. I cannot remember anything like it.
As for writing, I may have to go backwards to go forwards. I will beat a retreat, to something set in the past. Interestingly, I remember mentioning the cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century in a story. Somewhat in passing. And it occurs to me this is the greatest fear: that this will become a backdrop, not remarkable enough to be in the foreground. Enmeshed in the pattern of daily life.
The title here references, of course, The Time Warp by Richard O’Brien from the Rocky Horror Show: “…You’re into the time slip (And nothing can ever be the same).”
Main photo Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash
and Jon Tyson on Unsplash