modern fiction

The assertion that “While much modern fiction seems to represent contemporary life, we would be wrong to expect it to be ‘real’ or to offer an account of ‘the truth’” is an interesting one. It really raises a lot more questions than it answers, and this essay intends to explore the central tenets: does modern fiction represent contemporary life; if it does, why would one assume that would make it ‘real’; what is the distinction between being real and an account of the truth, is their meaning almost synonomous? At times, these points seem indistinct from one another- something that isn’t overly surprising given their close relationship to one another- but this essay hopes to demonstrate the subtle differences between them.


In order to address whether or not the three novels “represent contemporary life” one must first determine what is meant by representation. The OECD defines represent as being able “to act as a symbolic sign or substitute for (a person or thing)”  In this context representing contemporary life would indicate that a work is attempting to convey a modern situation. There is also an implication of integrity that will be explored later, in the part of this essay which is concerned with the link between representation and reality.


Brenton Brown is most certainly a book which is attempting to convey a modern situation. The first indication of this is in its use of language. Brenton and the majority of the other characters in the book speak in colloquialisms, like “nuff” and “t’ing”  that are unique to the contemporary setting that they are drawn from.


The First Person and Other Stories is a little harder to define. On the face of it, the novel’s use of modern English and references to twentieth-century technology place its setting within the last fifty years or so.  The problem with asserting that it represents contemporary life arises from the very nature of the book. It’s a collection of short stories that are linked thematically but otherwise have very few other reference points through which one can associate them. It seems to be a sweeping generalisation to classify them all as being concerned with representing contemporary life when its impossible to establish whether stories like “No Exit” are even set in the same decade as ones like “Present” or “The Child”.


The Elephant’s  Journey is the book that most strikingly  deviates from this modern trend of representing contemporary life. It’s set in sixteenth century Portugal and has  very few real references to the modern day. It’s also worth noting that the English version is further removed from contemporary life because it is a translation; even if it was set in contemporary times, it would still have the language barrier to contend with.


What is striking about all of examples explored above is how hard is to distinguish “representing contemporary life” from being “real”. There is a great deal of overlap between the two and that’s largely due to the heavy dependance the idea of “representing contemporary life” has on realism: how can one be seen to representing something real without being realistic?  The dependance is largely one way however, and it’s perfectly possible to be ‘realistic’ without being set in contemporary times. To determine whether or not the novels in question are realistic, one has to establish whether or not they show life faithfully, without conceits or stylistic impositions. It must be noted here that very few books can claim to be real in the most stringent sense: even the works of an author as dedicated to capturing life as Virginia Woolf are filled with technical flair. When this essay refers to the concept of ‘real’ or ‘reality’ it is talking about whether or not a work is factually accurate. In this sense intelligent, semi-magical animals would be deemed unrealistic whilst techniques such omniscient narration would not, providing that they dids directly interfere with the narrative as is often seen in metafiction.


Brenton Brown is, again, the novel that is arguably the closest to reality.  Wheatle resists the urge to obey character convention and despite presenting one of the great archetypical narratives- the avenging son, he chooses to have it end without the tragedy that would usually accompany such a story. By doing so, he is able to root his story firmly in reality: rather than the traditional, but highly unlikely,  tale of bloody revenge and melodrama that would leave half of the characters dead, Wheatle resolves the conflict with Shaun simply stating that “man wants to move on now.”


Wheatle continues to create this air of realism by refusing to use stereotypical characterisations, instead the cast of Brenton Brown are very believable characters who also happen to provide examples of pervading social problems. If we return again to Shaun we can see that he is not the typical “G” portrayed in much gangland culture but a divided, angsty teenager whose decisions reek of cowardice rather than glory. Despite his desire to be a part of that culture and to “get some respect”, he is unable to even pull the knife out of his jacket in Brenton’s presence. Ultimately the human qualities of fear – “he could feel perspiration drip from his armpits onto his ribs”-and thankfulness – “but he’s offering me a job”- prevent him from taking his revenge. In the end, he is neither damned nor elevated by the novel, simply depicted as he is, and in the end his life doesn’t lead to especial happiness, regret or some equally contrived cliché but an average existence. “”


Another example of Wheatle’s desire to represent realistic problems is his frank exploration of multicuralism, most specifically seen in the friction created when Juliet’s family is perceived to have taken what could stereotypicaly be considered ‘white culture’. They are portrayed as having a typically comfortable middle class life style -the marriage between the councillor and the banker, the precocious daughter-

something that, in the context of a London setting, is evocative of white culture.

This division becomes especially noticeable in scenes with Brenton who, by his nature, highlights the differences between them and clashes with the character who rather personifies this sanger. X is generally mild mannered, concerned with financial investment and . In constrast, Brenton retains his ‘race’ culture and finds it greatly aggrevating that Clayton acts “all superior” and therefore implies that the social morays that he has adopted are the desirable ones and that Brenton’s are lesser.

May 15, 2018


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