Anyone writing a novel in which ‘contemporary culture’ is central might wonder how to cram in the zeitgeist. One way is to appropriate some ideas from Douglas Coupland. The following points will help any novelist who’s striving to be iconic, laconic, and ironic. It’s recommended that anyone using this guide denies strenuously that they want to be cool.
The points are illustrated with an example. The example is quite a challenge for zeitgeisting-up: a traditional village romance. To make it zeitgeisty from the off then, this romance is between two city-dwellers. They meet through an online simulation of a village. The action takes place between their constructed online identities (who are fabulously rich) in a constructed online village (in a cottagey part of England). So let’s get zeitgeisting …
- Alienate your zeitgeisty characters from each other, themselves, and the world they’re in. All interactions should be mediated by products and services. This allows for your book to affect a critical distance. At the same time, your readers will feel flattered to have their favourite brands recognised by a zeitgeisty author. As a zeitgeisty author, you have a special power: you can sanctify consumption with literary irony. Use this power. Your characters should frequently express their mediated alienation as a mixture of exhaustion with through promotion of their favourite brands: ‘Oh, how I cringe at those domesticated women in those Aga posters, but you gotta eat, and a thermostatically controlled oil-fired range confuses guests when I’ve placed my iPad Mini strategically nearby. Synergy is what profile is made of.’
- Characters need to be young to be zeitgeisty – as we all know, rigor mortis begins at 30 (in fact, you could even use that line) – so their lifestyles need to be experimental, messy, and therefore infused with squalor. Your characters therefore need bad hygiene / health / tidying regimens. Domestic and work spaces should sound like a hoarder’s house after a burglary. Provide contrast for these effects with an ‘OCDish’ character. You now have scope for listing thousands of products …
- Base sentences around lists of commercial products. Pick them according to the lifestyles of your characters. So, in our simulation village ‘Clarissa imagined Rupert swapping his Tom Ford cotton twill jacket for a Stella McCartney pinny-dress, his Perazzi MX12 Game hunting rifle for a Kitchen Aid mixer, and all the while retaining his metrosexuality via gastrosexuality. Yes, Rupert could be the perfect metrogastro.’
- As with the last word in the example sentence above, invent new words by forcing existing ones together in a shotgun marriage. In our village romance, we can portmanteau village life and virtual life to give us ‘virtuallage’.
- Fill pages with typography. Place random words (most of which should be products, events, celebrities, or types of them) in random positions, suggesting poetry from an early 20th Century art movement such as Dada or Futurism. Our village romance, then, could be enhanced with the word ‘aspiration’ in the shape of a mouth breathing.
- Ensure there is consistent continuity but strictly without any plot. Events follow events towards nothing in particular. Your characters are comedy actors in a futile search for fulfilment in an age of surfaces.
- Above all, nothing is too small or too big because each moves in and out of the other. Frequently entwine the banality to the everyday with larger, global, even epochal events. Our romantic villagers, for example, give us the smallness to their actual lives as a counterpoint the largesse in their fantasy lives.
So as you can see, even a traditional story still has plenty of zeitgeist in the tank. What are you waiting for then? Go forth and be contemporary.