|Posted by Mark Cantrell on October 22, 2017 at 5:00 AM|
Back to where it all began
Mark Cantrell offers some reminiscences on the birth of his novel, Citizen Zero, released back in August by Inspired Quill. One journey ends, another begins…
In some respects, I'm talking about vanished youth. I guess that's what being a novelist does to you – it consumes your life while you're away in the worlds of make-believe. A curious twist on the relativity of starfaring, then, to wax metaphorical. It's more than two decades since I first began to write Citizen Zero – or JobNet to use its original working title. Back here on Earth, while much has changed over the years, the novel itself has simply grown into the modern era. I wish I could say the same for its author...
The year was 1994, sometime in March or April. The first notions that would become Citizen Zero were beginning to tickle my muse. In a way, they were crystallising out of lived experience, but also the culture of the time. Call it a post-Thatcher period, if you like. The 1990s were kicking into high-gear, but the echoes of the 1980s still lingered; mass unemployment and the impact of the dole on popular culture remained very much a thing.
Well, the dole has never really gone away. The debates around welfare, the stigmatising rhetoric of 'work-shy scroungers' has been at play for as long as I can remember. Over the last seven years, as welfare reform and austerity has turned the screws on the poor (working or otherwise), the Government has simply amped up the volume. In the process, ministers and headline writers have been practically writing the script for the novel's 'prequel'.
Back then, though, I just had this idea for a metaphorical, allegorical, rendition of life on the dole; something that captured some sense of the bleak uncertainties, the almost surreal experiences, of dealing with a bureaucracy that often seemed bewildered by the realities of the lives it was tasked to manage.
Indeed, we're dealing with a system caught in a contradiction between its stated purpose – of helping people find work – and the day-to-day functions of an administration that all too often seems built to undermine this perceived aim. Even before Universal Credit and welfare reform, the dole was mutating into an organism more fit for social control than social security: a coercive bulwark built in defence of an unequal society. And therein lies one of the central premises of Citizen Zero. But I'm digressing.
In the beginning, it was less a novel and more a 'prose poem'; an expression of my own existence at the time (with a huge dose of poetic license, of course). The novel was conceived in a top-floor flat at the back of a converted house on Liverpool's Edge Lane. I was sharing the place with a mate, both of us recent graduates from the university, wondering just what we were going to do with our lives. Me, I was chasing the literary dream even then, and figuring out how to turn my goal of becoming a journalist into a reality. Meanwhile, we were just shooting the breeze – two skint ex-students languishing on the dole, caught between one life and the next.
Gazing over the bleak rooftops visible through the window, rolling a fag, I sparked up and turned back to our conversation. And out poured the initial ideas for what was to become a novel. No, I still don't know where it came from, beyond my hindsight musings here. Poor Matt; he was destined to become a sounding board for many of the ideas and plot twists over the ensuing months. But, he took it in his stride – and the encouragement was much appreciated.
At the time, it was little more than an 'Alice Through The Looking Glass' take on life on the dole, but I couldn't accept the protagonist just wandering through some dark and surreal landscape, for the sake of it, however allegorical it was intended to be: I needed some thing that rationalised his situation. That's where virtual reality came in; a landscape distorted by a computer virus. It wasn't long before the essential elements of the plot began to fall into place.
Why he was in virtual reality, why somebody used him to carry a virus into the system, these began to fill in the blanks. The story began to take shape. What emerged was my story of how a system originally devised as a social safety net could be transmuted into a part of a coercive surveillance state: the dole as a kind of virtual gulag.
Since then, of course, Government policy has been breathing a kind of Frankensteinish life into the novel’s dark vision. Let’s just hope they don’t go to far…
Ironically, 16 years after finishing my original author's draft, with Citizen Zero now a published novel, I'm kind of back where it all began – on the dole. You might say life has a sense of humour. Hopefully, I'll have the last laugh...
Here’s to the next chapter.
18 October 2017
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