BookBlast Review of Tinderbox, a debut novel by Megan Dunn.
“In the wake of Amazon’s Kindle it seemed unlikely that books would ever be banned: instead books are commodified, turned into movies and TV series, rated and recommended in Goodreads, their individual sales histories quantified on Nielsen Bookdata and in the fathomless depths of the Amazon Sales Ranking system. Even the Kindle was named by a branding consultant who suggested the word to Amazon because it means to light a fire. The branding consultant thought that ‘kindle’ was an apt metaphor for reading and intellectual excitement . . .” [p.6 Tinderbox]
The recent Arts Council England report into literary fiction which shows sales, advances and retail prices slumping over the last fifteen years, and the average writer scraping by on £11,000 a year, does not make for seasonal cheer. Clever novels like Megan Dunn’s Tinderbox could possibly offer literary heavyweights hope for the future.
The literary canon as fandom is booming, as the greats of literature are ideologised and hybridised as part of our shifting 21st Century cultural ecology. The symbiosis between cinema, television, computer games, popular music and comics is giving rise to all manner of new creations, blurring the lines between what is real, what is imagined, and interpretations thereof. The blinkered, bookish view that popular culture fans take no interest in literary classics is a false one. Amateur writers are inspired by a whole range of classic texts, from Homer and Shakespeare, to Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Victor Hugo. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five have all been reimagined and transformed – unsurprisingly, Harry Potter comes out on top with over 778670 stories.
Literature as Hybrid
Megan Dunn’s Tinderbox is more fanography than fan fiction. She first read Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451, age 14, while attending Western Heights High School in Rotorua, New Zealand. Her father had driven cross-country selling books to libraries in his thirties. “’Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future,’ Ray Bradbury said. I agreed. I had written my first published short story in the Stoke Newington library.”
The literary original is intertwined with Megan’s own struggles as a fledgling novelist, her interpretations of the life of Bradbury the author, and the making of the 1966 screen version by François Truffaut of his most successful book, starring Julie Christie.
Fahrenheit 451 is “the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns.” Montag, the fireman at the centre of Bradbury’s novel, becomes disillusioned with his soulless job of censoring and burning books that are outlawed as a way to keep the peace, since citizens who watch big-screen wall TV all day have no opinions, and are easier to control.
Megan works at doomed book chain Borders, “because I thought it would help me become a better writer.” The business of bookselling similarly becomes soulless and dispiriting, “I was a supervisor at Borders Norwich when In the Night Garden became big on TV. The programme was catnip for toddlers and quickly spawned a range of associated merchandise. Shipments of the show’s characters Iggle Piggle, Upsy Daisy and Maka Paka arrived . . . We outsold every other Borders UK store for In the Night Garden products. The toddlers wheeled around the shop recognised the characters and shouted out their names. I noticed that the children did not hold Upsy Daisy in low esteem. In the Night Garden was produced by the same team behind the Teletubbies. They knew what they were doing.”
From National Novel Writing Month “an online community for anyone who has ever wanted to write a novel,” and using the word count graph on the NaNoWriMo to measure her daily output, Megan progresses to the University of East Anglia and a writing course taught by Michèle Roberts. Its Creative Writing MA, the first of its kind in the UK, was founded in 1970. Many significant writers have taught there, and it is a well-known hunting ground for London agents. (“Remember that publishers are sheep” was the advice I was given by a commissioning editor at Picador, when I was first setting up shop to go it alone as an agent which turned out not to be my thing at all.)
Bradbury’s Montag rebels after meeting Clarisse McClellan, gets into trouble, is betrayed by his wife, and ultimately joins the book people who memorize and share the world’s greatest literary and cultural works. Although “now they could store their libraries on their Kindles or iPads. Project Gutenberg has been in the business of archiving classics since 1971.”
In the evenings Megan reads Fahrenheit 451, “while my boyfriend played Grand Theft Auto on the PlayStation. His car swerved round corners as I turned pages . . . ‘Hey baby, what’ll it be?’ My boyfriend picked up a prostitute on Grand Theft Auto. The prostitute gave my boyfriend’s alter ego a blowjob in the front seat of the car. Afterwards she got out, slammed the door and said: ‘You wore my pussy out. You men are all the same. You think you want one thing but really you want everything’.”
Megan marries ‘Mickey Romance’ who wants to be an actor. They move in and out of rented flats around London; and she also moves in and out of different branches of Borders before it is liquidated. She questions why she is writing “a book about a book,” and the meaning of life.
Author and reader; imagination and reality; the beginning of one work and the end of another, gradually converge.
“As a bookseller, reader and writer I knew I should share Bradbury’s point of view that books are the highest form of art. Yet I was seriously considering the counter argument. Maybe my life would have been better off without books? I don’t know if Axl Rose has read many novels, yet I defy anyone who has watched the ‘November Rain’ video to say life hasn’t moved him deeply.”
As high and popular literature intertwine, derivative works, fan fiction, fanography, sequels and the literary work as a never-ending story all breathe new life into classics and the bestsellers of yesteryear. All are ways for a new writer to get noticed, perhaps, in an overcrowded marketplace. Bradbury like Orwell was prophetic. Megan Dunn’s well-crafted first novel is observant, shrewd, and funny. A polished cri de coeur about a culture in flux, Tinderbox left me in a reflective mood. We are going through a revolutionary time – whether the future is progressive or reactionary remains to be seen.
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