Thursday, July 19, 2012

Apocalypse Cow, dead children and John Gummer

I must be showing my age – and not just in the grey hairs, slowing legs that lead me to clog a few more people on the football field and inability to remember the location of my phone and keys for more than five seconds.

I’ve noticed quite a few reviewers of Apocalypse Cow were disturbed by one particular scene, in which the young child of a politician is killed live on television during a publicity stunt aimed at keeping consumers eating meat as the zombie virus spreads through Britain’s livestock. While it may seem gratuitous to readers who are not as advanced in years as I am, it is there for a very specific reason, one which stretches back to the height of the Mad Cow crisis in the UK.

In 1990, as Brits got themselves into a tizzy over the likelihood of contracting BSE (in its human form CJD) from eating infected beef, John Selwyn Gummer, at the time Agriculture Minister for the Tory government, staged a press event during which he tried to feed his four-year-old daughter Cordelia a burger. Only days before a cat had died of a BSE-like disease, showing that the virus could mutate, and the government had banned humans from eating beef offal.

His intention was to ease public fears over British beef. Instead, he ended up being vilified for his PR stunt, although he continued to defend his actions years later and his daughter did not contract CJD. In retrospect, the chances of her contracting any illness were very slim, and to be fair he did eat the burger himself, but he essentially took a chance with her daughter’s welfare in the hope of gaining political capital. Children have long been tools in the political game, wheeled out regularly to fluff up a politician's family credentials and gain votes, but that was taking it a bit too far. Gummer got away with it. The politician in my book doesn't.

Anyway, this is the problem with satire. If readers don’t actually know of the event you are parodying – and that is obviously a danger if you are drawing on something that happened 22 years ago – then they are going to miss the whole point of the scene and, as appears to be the case with my book, suspect the author is just a sadistic swine who enjoys bumping off children on page.

Of course, The Hunger Games is full of children being slaughtered in various nasty ways, and most people are fine with that because they understand there is some message behind it. Perhaps I should go down the Monty Python route in future, and flash a large ‘SATIRE’ sign across the page with a footnote explaining what I’m doing. Or maybe not.

I have also half-written a blog post on depictions of graphic violence in the media, books and films, as it has been something I have thinking about a lot given both the nature of my book and long history of working in journalism dealing with rather nasty conflicts. I need to chew on it a bit longer, but will post it soon. The basic gist of it is looking at why we don't like to see pictures of dead bodies, and why people are offended by descriptions of death in novels - even though novelists explore and describe everything else in great detail.


Niccolo Capanni said...

I thought that was a particularly brave scene to write. (Warning spoiler follow) In true from the politician escapes while others suffer for his actions.

You were not overly graphic, hardly graphic at all in that scene. I think the concept may be disturbing for some people, which says good thing about humanity. What says bad things is that children are suffering far more in this country and world wide because of far more self serving political actions.

Helen Keeble said...

Really interesting blog post, Michael! I enjoyed reading about the thought process behind that particular scene.

I think for me that scene was the point where Apocalypse Cow turned from being a fun (albeit bloody) romp into something much darker and more realistic than I was expecting. Later on you have the simple description of a bloody, overturned empty pram on the side of the railway, which REALLY hit home for me - such a powerful and horrific image! That sort of thing meant I couldn't really get back into the funny characters and amusing events, because the backdrop of a destroyed Britain was just SO realistic it stopped me from being able to laugh at the humorous bits. Consider it a compliment to your writing. :)

I _did_ enjoy The Hunger Games, which also features graphic brutality toward children, but I think the difference there is that book is trying to make one cry rather than laugh; it took me through powerful emotions and offered a cathartic ending (at least the first book did, and it is interesting to note how divisive the third book - which does something quite different - was in the fanbase).

Personally, harm to children nowadays provokes such an instinctive, visceral revulsion in me (I should note here that I am the mother of a toddler; hormones are powerful things!) that I simply can't enjoy it as entertainment _unless_ the entire narrative revolves around exploring such themes, as in the Hunger Games (and even there, it's older children rather than defenseless toddlers, and a very fantasy setting; I could not read a novel about, for example, child abuse or a school shooting, no matter how respectfully the theme was handled). I suspect that if I'd read Apocalypse Cow a few years ago, before becoming a parent, I probably wouldn't have had this reaction and would have found it a much more lighthearted romp!

Michael Logan said...

Hello Helen,

I am a parent too, so I see where you are coming from. Even the thought of something minor happening to either of my kids fills me with a sick dread, and reading real-life stories about bad things happening to other children prompts a reaction I didn't feel before.

As for Apocalypse Cow, I never intended it to be simply a light-hearted romp. It grows darker as it goes on, because it has to in face of the events unfolding. Some things can be made light of, others can’t, and I didn’t want to gloss over the awful events for the sake of a few laughs. Quite a few people have commented on this shift in tone.

I am of the opinion that fiction, even far-fetched stories about zombie cows, should reflect life as much as possible. And life - as my experience as a journalist working on conflicts, disasters and famines has shown me - can throw up horror and humour in quick succession.

I come from a background of writing literary fiction, and some of that leaked through into this very different style. In Apocalypse Cow, one of the key things for me is the emotional core of the story, particularly Geldof's gradual understanding of his love for his mother. The humour is about the social situations and human interactions, and I never ask the reader to laugh at death itself. The humour is, in many ways, secondary to the story and the look at how people and society crumble under pressure, and is my attempt to reflect real life - where laughter is often the tool people use to deal with horror.

I think if we were to live something like this, most of us would react the same way, and reading or watching something from the outside is very different from living it, as we can allow our minds to process in a more dispassionate way.

For me, it's a bit like the experience of childbirth. When watching the videos in Lamaze class, childbirth seems incredibly frightening. My wife and I came out petrified, as did many other parents, and had lots of times to analysis (read worry and work up the fear level). Yet once we were in there, with the adrenaline, and hormones on my wife’s part, flowing, it was nowhere near as bad, and we managed to laugh and joke our way through the stress and pain - again, on my wife’s part, except for the point where her nail caused an agonizing graze on my hand as she clutched too hard  We even managed to get through her giving birth on the bathroom floor for our second kid, who came rather faster than we wanted.

Anyway, thanks for engaging in this interesting discussion. It’s enjoyable to get the chance to talk with another author about these kind of things, and I’m always happy to discuss why I did something a certain way, as so far I’ve discovered that people see dozens of different things in a book depending on their life experiences