Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Rage against the machines

Anthony McCarten. Photo / Supplied

NZ Herald -  Saturday Jan 28, 2012 - Stephen Jewell

Left - Anthony McCarten. 

Anthony McCarten didn't intend to write a follow-up to his novel Death of a Superhero when he embarked upon his latest work, In the Absence of Heroes. But after coming up with the premise for a story involving a triangle of characters, it dawned on the Gloucestershire-based New Zealander that he had already created three ideal protagonists in the shape of Jim and Renata Delpe and their elder son, Jeffrey. Set some time after the death of the Delpes' youngest son, Donald, In the Absence of Heroes finds the trio retreating into their own separate computer-generated fantasy worlds as they struggle to come to terms with his premature passing.
"I originally came up with an entirely independent idea that ostensibly required a father, a wife and a son," recalls McCarten, 51. "Then I realised I had already invented them in the last book so I thought I would try and see if I could marry the two together and it was a natural fit. It added so much more because I could explore aspects not covered in the first novel, which was pretty preoccupied with its central character.
"I knew they were a family that wasn't connecting with each other as they had been cast into a state of grief and isolation from each other in the aftermath of Donald's death. It was the perfect setting to justify this disconnect between all the characters."

Death of a Superhero saw terminally ill Donald delving into the testosterone-fuelled world of comic books. This time, the internet and online role-playing games initially provide 18-year-old Jeff and his father, Jim, with some solace in In the Absence of Heroes.
"One of the pleasures of writing both books was being able to play with different ways to tell a story," says McCarten. "I stumbled upon this journey with Superhero, where I could almost jump tracks in the narrative across to another level of reality but still pursue it as a story with allegorical meanings. The reader would impute what I was trying to get at and then jump back to the main story. That binarism, which I've been interested in playing with as a narrative device, is hopefully even more fitting in this book, which is about computers and what they're doing to our own lives."
According to McCarten, the internet has had a detrimental impact on our lives. "I'm not a computer game person but I'm really interested in the hold it has on popular culture," he says. "If you go into my local Blockbuster, you used to be faced with a wall of new movie releases but it's now almost entirely given over to computer games while movies have been ghettoised to the back corner."
As the father of two teenage sons, McCarten worries about the widening gap between the generations. "I'm very aware of the changing face of family and the shift in parental roles that's going on. In the old days, your kids would go and play in the playground, but now they're disappearing whenever they've got an internet connection into games of mass murder.
"What's the long-term significance of this going to be? Kids have always played with guns, but the veracity of these games and the fact you become so immersed in them is disturbing, and the simulation of killing and being killed is incredibly realistic."
But the net is all around us, as McCarten demonstrates during our meeting at a Notting Hill brasserie by pulling out his iPhone to check his emails. "It's like a tidal wave," he laughs. "It's taken out every village and we're all drowning in it. It's now considered socially aggressive if you're not connected; that there must be something wrong with you if you don't have a smartphone, an email address or a Facebook account. We're all being dragged under by this tsunami."

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