My first novel Billy Moon is due out on Tuesday and the publicists and marketing people want people to think about Winnie the Pooh when they hear about the title. It makes sense, it’s totally fair. After all, Billy Moon really was Christopher Robin Milne, the son of A. A. Milne, the world-famous author of Winnie the Pooh, and my book tells the story of Billy’s striving to overcome being a fictional character in his father’s books. Billy Moon is struggling not to be Christopher Robin when, as a veteran of World War II, a husband, and father, he is jolted out of his midlife crisis by a letter from a French college student revolutionary in Paris.
But, from my way of thinking the real protagonist in Billy Moon is not the title character, nor any other individual character, but rather, what I aimed at with this book, was to make the novel itself, the whole story taken at once, the protagonist for itself. One way to think about what I was trying to write is this: I wanted to produce the kind of book that Tralfamadorians might enjoy.
How many of you have read Kurt Vonnegut’s book, Slaughterhouse 5? In that one there is an alien race who see everything, all of time, all at once. These aliens don’t have any concept of change, or progress. So, a book for a Tralfmadorian isn’t about one person and how his or her life changes as she goes after what he or she wants, but it’s a collection of all the different points in a person’s life, or a species life, or a solar system’s life, seen all at once.
So this is what I wanted, but not being a Tralfmadorian it’s not what I wrote. I had to write a book that unfolded through time in the normal way. I had to write a linear story, but I tried to write a linear story that at least gave the reader the impression of what this totality of simultaneous lived experience, this collective reality, was. I wanted to create at least a momentary glimpse of the miracle.
Why did I want that? It probably sounds confusing? What use is it? And what does this have to do with Christopher Robin.
Well, my book was about two things, two things that really don’t belong together but that I sutured together: Christopher Robin and May ’68. Or, put a different way, it’s about the hundred acre wood and the Spectacle.
Back in 1967, a year before the big strike, a french radical named Guy Debord wrote a book of theory called “The Society of the Spectacle” and in this book he defined the Spectacle as not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”
So, what I want to suggest is that this Spectacle can be thought of as a Tralfmadorian book, or as a story that is already told and understood. The Spectacle is what we take to be real, what we often think of as unchanging and unchangeable. Today the Spectacle is the background against which changes in our world can be understood, it’s what allows us to even see that changes are happening.
For example: The Spectacle gives us the idea of the telephone. We think we know what it is, but over time there are a hundred modifications made to what we think we know so that, in the end, what we have in our pockets are not so much phones as interfaces. We see the world through our phones. Our phones connect us to each other, but not one person at a time. They connect us all at once. Our phones are no longer merely phones, but we can only know that because we still have this idea of what a phone is and how it works.
Or take childhood. The industrial revolution gave us the idea of childhood as we know it today, but kids today are very different from the children we knew when we were amongst them. For one thing, these children are as caught up in the screen culture of computers and smart phones as anyone else, and in a world where leisure time and childish pleasure has become the main carrot of our collective lives, childhood has ceased to be the terrain of children alone, but is now something that is nurtured and maintain in everyone. Childhood appears now to be life itself. It appears to have no clear beginning and certainly no end.
So, I wanted to write a book about May, 1968. I wanted to write a story that sort of unraveled what went wrong back in the 60s, that at least made an attempt to explain why this giant strike that paralyzed France for a month, had failed. What I wanted to figure out is why it was that even as everything refused to stand still the background of the Spectacle wasn’t changing at all, and seeming could not be changed.
So my answer was to start with the fact of the fiction, the fact that there is a structure or spectacle, that shapes and directs what otherwise appears to be our individual linear lives. I wanted to point out that the impossible feat, the Tralfamdorian trick of seeing reality all at once, was actually going on all the time, even as reality seemed to be changing.
And then, of course, I wanted to suggest that this reality, this totality, this spectacle, actually could be changed. And if I could sum up my book with a single quote, it might be this slightly altered one from a The House at Pooh Corner:
Wherever we go, and whatever happens to us on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear are always playing.
We are all of us always playing, but it still might be possible to change the rules of the game.