Rage against the machines

By Stephen Jewell

Anthony McCarten. Photo / Supplied
Anthony McCarten. Photo / Supplied

Anthony McCarten didn't intend to write a follow-up to his novel Death of a Superhero when he embarked upon his latest work, In the Absence of Heroes. But after coming up with the premise for a story involving a triangle of characters, it dawned on the Gloucestershire-based New Zealander that he had already created three ideal protagonists in the shape of Jim and Renata Delpe and their elder son, Jeffrey. Set some time after the death of the Delpes' youngest son, Donald, In the Absence of Heroes finds the trio retreating into their own separate computer-generated fantasy worlds as they struggle to come to terms with his premature passing.

"I originally came up with an entirely independent idea that ostensibly required a father, a wife and a son," recalls McCarten, 51. "Then I realised I had already invented them in the last book so I thought I would try and see if I could marry the two together and it was a natural fit. It added so much more because I could explore aspects not covered in the first novel, which was pretty preoccupied with its central character.

"I knew they were a family that wasn't connecting with each other as they had been cast into a state of grief and isolation from each other in the aftermath of Donald's death. It was the perfect setting to justify this disconnect between all the characters."
Death of a Superhero saw terminally ill Donald delving into the testosterone-fuelled world of comic books. This time, the internet and online role-playing games initially provide 18-year-old Jeff and his father, Jim, with some solace in In the Absence of Heroes.

"One of the pleasures of writing both books was being able to play with different ways to tell a story," says McCarten. "I stumbled upon this journey with Superhero, where I could almost jump tracks in the narrative across to another level of reality but still pursue it as a story with allegorical meanings. The reader would impute what I was trying to get at and then jump back to the main story. That binarism, which I've been interested in playing with as a narrative device, is hopefully even more fitting in this book, which is about computers and what they're doing to our own lives."

According to McCarten, the internet has had a detrimental impact on our lives. "I'm not a computer game person but I'm really interested in the hold it has on popular culture," he says. "If you go into my local Blockbuster, you used to be faced with a wall of new movie releases but it's now almost entirely given over to computer games while movies have been ghettoised to the back corner."

As the father of two teenage sons, McCarten worries about the widening gap between the generations. "I'm very aware of the changing face of family and the shift in parental roles that's going on. In the old days, your kids would go and play in the playground, but now they're disappearing whenever they've got an internet connection into games of mass murder.

"What's the long-term significance of this going to be? Kids have always played with guns, but the veracity of these games and the fact you become so immersed in them is disturbing, and the simulation of killing and being killed is incredibly realistic."

But the net is all around us, as McCarten demonstrates during our meeting at a Notting Hill brasserie by pulling out his iPhone to check his emails. "It's like a tidal wave," he laughs. "It's taken out every village and we're all drowning in it. It's now considered socially aggressive if you're not connected; that there must be something wrong with you if you don't have a smartphone, an email address or a Facebook account. We're all being dragged under by this tsunami."

Unlike Jim, who initially reluctantly engages with the mythical kingdoms of the fictional Life of Lore before being drawn into its insidious web, McCarten has resisted plunging too deeply into real-life games like the phenomenally popular World of Warcraft.

"It's somatic in the way that it works, as it is pleasure-giving and reality-avoiding," he says. "The barriers to reality seem to be becoming quite permanently fuzzy and the lure of these alternate-reality games is challenging reality itself in a way. The internet is posing new forms of relationships and new definitions of intimacy. We're living in a time of enormous change as a result of this electronic revolution, which is probably on a par with the revolution our grandparents faced with World War II and that of our parents with the sexual revolution.

"It's similar to those huge seismic shifts in how we define meaning in our lives and define relationships. But it's so new and fresh that the jury's still out on the long-term effects, but it's astonishing how everything is being recalibrated."

But is McCarten simply out of touch with today's teenagers, who interact more instinctively with cutting-edge technology? "I'm not saying we should resist it or go back to some hunter-gatherer state, but the challenges are immense and the ways to use it to a positive end have yet to be discovered," he says. "We're so overwhelmed with newness. We're all using it and buying and updating this stuff, but are our lives any better? A lot of us have hunches that our lives have been demeaned by it, but 'what the hell, we'll upgrade anyway!' We'll get the new 4G because faster must be better and a bigger screen must be better than a smaller one."

McCarten is concerned his internet-savvy children will lose touch with the important touchstones of everyday existence. "My fear is that life is less real for them; it has such a high degree of unreality in it that I wonder if it's going to leave them unbalanced," he says. "The beast that you have to wrestle with in the end is not a computer-generated one, it's reality itself: getting a job, having a relationship, intimacy and commitments. These games are an escape, they're not a training ground for any of that stuff."

McCarten hopes any goggle-eyed teens who read the novel will pick up some useful tips from his invented scenario. "I was trying to do something with Life of Lore, which I can't see in other computer games, where they could also function as moral workouts. A kid or an adult could go in there and face some symmetrical challenges or make some counter-intuitive decisions that are a bit more like real life, where you don't actually get what you want but you get what you need. I'm almost imagining some future game that could deliver some life lessons that are more valuable than a body count."

As their titles indicate, Death of a Superhero and In the Absence of Heroes examine the nature of heroism. "A lot of us in our comfortable wisdom are largely untested and we don't really know what real defining qualities we have," says McCarten. "The challenges we face are usually making a decent wage and looking after those we love, but how would we measure up under the toughest moral test? How would we deal with our inherent degeneracy?

"I try to have an element of degeneracy in all my characters. We're all desperately trying to cover up for that as we all have our foibles, so how can we be our most heroic self despite that? How do you get to be the person you want to be or to have the relationship that you really want to have? Those questions are timeless."

As he notes in the introduction to In the Absence of Heroes, the original New Zealand edition of Death of a Superhero was set in Wellington but the location was changed to north London at the behest of McCarten's British publisher, Alma Books, when the novel was published there in 2008. Having enjoyed more success with it abroad than at home, he has now chosen to base the Delpes permanently in the Hertfordshire town of Watford.

"I am absolutely a New Zealand writer but I wouldn't define myself like that," he says. "I'm a New Zealander who wants to write rather than a New Zealand writer, which tends to suggest that I write about New Zealand. My main fascination with New Zealand is what goes on in the living rooms and the boardrooms and that's also true of anywhere else."

Best known for co-writing the 1987 hit stage play Ladies' Night with Stephen Stratford, McCarten directed his first film, Via Satellite, in 1999, the same year that his debut novel, Spinners, was published.

"I spent the first decade of my writing life as a playwright and then the movies and the books happened," says McCarten, who moved to Britain in 2000. "The opportunity for travel started to arise so I took advantage of that."

In the Absence of Heroes will also be published in Germany, where Death of a Superhero has performed impressively. "Remarkably, it's turned into the best market for me in the world, as I've sold many more books there than anywhere else," says McCarten, who also raised finance for the forthcoming big-screen adaptation of Death of a Superhero in the country. "The New Zealand Film Commission pulled out of funding it, which left us high and dry in many ways. But the German money stayed strong and the Irish Film Board stepped in to replace the New Zealand money."

Directed by Ian Fitzgibbon from a screenplay by McCarten, the film stars Andy Serkis as Dr Adrian King, 12-year-old Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Donald and Sharon Horgan as his mother, Renata.

"We've had to change a few things," says McCarten of the film, which recently won the Audience Choice Prize and the Young Jury Prize at the Les Arcs European Film Festival.

"We've had to focus more on the boy, so it's become his story, while the novel is fairly evenly weighted between him and the psychologist's personal life. We've had to expand some of the storylines, particularly the love story between Donald and the girl he takes a shine to."

McCarten has also recently completed an extensive rewrite of his 2003 novel Brilliance, which centres on the friendship between J.P. Morgan and Thomas Edison. "It's essentially about how they laid the foundations for the modern world through business and technology," says McCarten, who describes the disappointing original version as "the one that got away" but was given the opportunity to revisit it after being asked to turn it into a play.

"In doing so, I discovered the spine of the story in a way I hadn't managed before. Instead of a linear story, it's now set over two time periods and the story cuts between them, allowing me to show the central characters in their prime and their own age, reflecting back on past triumphs and mistakes."

Brilliance will be published in New Zealand in May, just before McCarten returns home for the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.

McCarten is unsure whether he will ever return to the Delpes. "I won't extend the life of the characters for the sake of it," he says. "If I have another story that comes to mind that requires a husband, wife and son and it fitted again, I would continue it.

"But it's not like a journal, where I'm going to update what happens to them next. I'm not going to pad out a story to continue their lives. The story is the thing; it had to be a persuasive story."

- NZ Herald

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