A Novel By
I Wrote It for You and A Novel By are possible titles of the unpublished novel James Gillespie leaves on his PC to be discovered by his girlfriend, played by Samantha Morton, after he kills himself. I’m not sure we are ever made aware of the method of his suicide, but it is certainly violent. It’s coming up to Christmas and the multi-coloured lights on the small tree in the living room pulse slowly above his bloodied corpse: perhaps he anticipated this, and the ghoulishness of the scene appealed to him. Gillespie’s note begins with the blunt imperative READ THIS (another title?) and is apparently typed on the first few pages of the document containing his novel. He provides little explanation for his actions, only commenting that it ‘felt like the right thing to do’, which sounds too much like an excuse provided after the fact, as if his spirit were actually communicating via the flashing cursor at the start of his message (an authorial touch: he edited). Apart from a brief mention of money held in a savings account, the short note is devoted to plans for the novel, with instructions to send the manuscript to several London publishers, whom he lists in order of preference. At first glance, the ambition of Gillespie’s gambit seems impressive, if somewhat adolescent in its energy: death in this life, for immortality in literature! The author of a singular work, written in obscurity, Felled by His Own Hand. There’s an urgency to his bid for posthumous fame that verges on neediness, and which could be touching or gauche or both; finally the presumption is irritating though, a response that we sense Samantha Morton will arrive at too, even as she numbs herself at a party with booze and pills in the wake of the tragedy, keeping the news to herself. From this unsightly detritus, a few indicators of Gillespie’s character begin to glimmer corrosively. As well as the novel, he bequeaths his girlfriend a number of other gifts, wrapped-up like Christmas presents (are they still Christmas presents, functionally speaking?); these items are narcissistic in scope and add a cinematic flourish to his already theatrical exit. A leather jacket, brand new. A walkman. A mixtape (Music For You, another title, he can’t help it). A cigarette lighter in a special leather case. Maybe a pair of aviator sunglasses, but I could have made those up; anyway it’s as if he is condemning the recipient to live in a late album by The Cure. Selecting these purchases, wrapping them in patterned paper, Gillespie undoubtedly imagined Samantha Morton ghosting the high street in a gothic aura made potent by their staged convergence: a figure in an immaculate leather jacket, smoking a cigarette, listening on headphones to the soundtrack he made for the movie she is in. Here she sits on a swing in a deserted playground; here she stands near the sea at dusk, with mauve clouds, blank to it all: is that what we’re watching? Imagining these scenes makes us confront Gillespie’s determination to author and licence his girlfriend’s grief from a point beyond death. You sense that for him these images possess a power he believes will ensure their permanence, that Samantha Morton’s funereal outline will endlessly circuit the bars, the shops, the cemetery, the long plume from her cigarette forming his signature; that her taciturn affairs will be morbid recreations of their relationship, unable to survive in the strained daylight that characterises her waking life; that the blue horizon will seal at head-height with the level weight of his genius. He must have felt very certain of her temperament: a novelist’s certainty, which is a sort of vanity. It’s important that we detect from the outset Samantha Morton’s resistance to the role that her character’s dead boyfriend has prepared for her. Even as she reads his note for the first time, her features, unearthly pale (as Gillespie might put it) in the dreary light from the monitor, disclose a faint scepticism. The note is unconvincing for a few reasons I’ve already hinted at. Later, using the same shot, we see her appraise the document at greater length: I wrote it for you. The female narrator, described by the publisher as ‘a distinctive and original voice’, informs us why the novel has no title. Alone, in near silence, she performs the deed central to the story of the genre: the displacement of her name from subject to author, as effortless and ingenious as tearing out a page. As, letter by letter, she deletes her dead boyfriend and, letter by letter, spells out herself, we witness the forging of a meaning that, usually unobserved, attends the fireside where our narrative originated: the erasing of a debt. You sense the act’s peculiar finality. Her ascension from the epigraph she represented a moment ago (desultory, passive: a dedication), to the text’s instant embodiment, invites the total collapse of this fiction’s economy; when Samantha Morton hits print, and the manuscript transitions from virtual to actual, her book becomes the receipt all writing is: an obliterated name, a payment deposited. Or to put it another way, revenge is served. She is linked with a scribble on a strong six-figure cheque. Samantha Morton is never seen to read the novel, and her disinterest, expressed eloquently in her decision to go immediately to Spain and do loads of MDMA, announces the one remaining interpretation: that she doesn’t need to, that is, that this note is just the preface to her book, that I am necessarily a fantasy, a person resembling a literary device, and she needed to climb inside my name, to evacuate its power from within, to dismember me and dance on my remains, and so (doubly) ensure my silence. Samantha Morton reappears as a legal function at the other end of her novel’s terracotta corridor, holding an identical red flower, the rest is fiction.
[Sam Riviere is the author of the poetry collections 81 Austerities (2012), Standard Twin Fantasy (2014) and Kim Kardashian's Marriage (2015). He runs the poetry micropublishing project If a Leaf Falls Press and is currently Writer in Residence at the University of Edinburgh.]
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