By Siddharth Prasad
A friend of mine has recently written a novel set in the mid-1800s. Not a very exciting period to pitch your plot in, you’d think. But actually, when you really go into the matter, you’ll see it’s a very smart move. That’s because ever since cellphones happened to humankind, it’s become impossible for a story set in contemporary times to have even a halfway-decent plot.
It’s no coincidence that Agatha Christie, Alistair Maclean, Shakespeare and Wodehouse all wrote in the BC (Before Cellphone) era. Because the biggest crime for which cellphones (now armed with FB too) deserve the guillotine is the complete removal of surprise from our lives.
This may be fine if you’re a regular person with normal nosiness who generally likes to know things, or a husband conducting a little nooky on the side who doesn’t want the wife to drop by unexpectedly; but if you’re a writer you’re dead. When everyone knows where everyone else is and exactly what they’re up to, well then what are you going to base a plot on?
Romance? Forget it; with so many tweets to follow about the love-lives of film stars, no one conducts personal romances any more. Murder? Far too many instances of bullets meant for the heart being stopped by cellphones kept in shirt pockets. And besides, you need some amount of privacy to commit a decent murder. It’s no good if you’re sneaking up behind a prospective murderee with knife raised to strike and suddenly you get a call from your wife reminding you to pick up a kilo of bhindis on your way home. Hardly any scope for a locked room murder mystery these days. And as for Adventure, how many gripping chapters can you write about ‘How I Recreated My Contacts List After Accidently Dropping My N900 Into A Whisky & Soda’?
The problem with life is that cellphones have taken out all the excitement from it. Earlier, authors had such a vast and multi-hued plotspace to write in. Today, they’d struggle. Just insert a Blackberry into any classic tale, and watch the story disintegrate:
Paul Revere – The Ride That Wasn’t Imagine this: Paul Revere is parked astride his trusty steed, eyeglass trained unwaveringly on the tower from which an accomplice will signal how the British forces are approaching. “One if by land,” he repeats to himself. “Two if by sea,” he mutters. “One, land. Two, sea. One, land. Two, sea. One land to see.” He’s confusing himself, when lo! From aloft the darkness of yon tower, a lantern shines forth. And, before he can catch his breath, another. Paulie pulls out a Nokia from his posterior pocket and types as follows: ‘Dey’s comin’ in boats, da filthy swine. Go gettem.’ Then he selects ‘Send to all’ and schmoozes around to the nearest inn for a glass of rye. Sorry, Longfellow, old chap, but no ride tonight.
A Failed Murder Attempt Little Red Riding Hood (on cellphone): Hi Gran. I just stopped off at the store for a recharge card. Will be with you in five.”
Granny: “You will? Then who’s this hairy chick with big ears and bad breath, knocking on my door claiming to be you? Damn, I think some skullduggery is afoot.”
Wolf: “Damn! Foiled again.”
Author: “Damn! Foiled again.”
Meanwhile, On A Certain Balcony In Verona Juliet (lovelorn): “Oh Romeo, Romeo. Wherefore art thou, Romeo?”
Juliet (annoyed, repeats): “Oh Romeo, Romeo. Wherefore art thou, Rom… Damn, forgot to press the ‘Call’ button.”
Tales That Almost Were Scene: Camelot, the court of King Arthur. King Arthur is sitting on the royal throne, exchanging a couple of cozy texts with Queen Guinevere who is in her rooms.
Enter Sir Launcelot.
Sir Launcelot: “Sire, what about the Search for the Holy Grail?”
King A (annoyed by the interruption): “Well, what about it?”
Sir L: “Sire, we must seek it.”
King A (exasperated): “Oh, alright.” He googles Holy Grail on his Blackberry. “Ah, there it is – go ask Dan Brown. He’s found it, it seems. And take that damn round table with you…”
Sir L (muttering): “The old order changeth already. Damn.”
Sherlock Who? 221B Baker Street. Holmes: “Hark, Watson. Footsteps ascending our stairs. The irregularity in the sound indicates that the heel of one boot has worn down more than the other. A young man, I’d say, fond of playing hopscotch…”
The door bursts open to reveal a dishevelled young man holding a hopscotch trophy.
Young man: “Mr. Holmes, you are the only man in England who can help me. I am Jack Benimble, the national hopscotch champion. My doubles partner has been missing since yesterday. I fear he has been kidnapped to prevent our partici… oh, hang on…”
He reads a recently arrived SMS and breathes a very large sigh of relief. “It’s alright, Mr. Holmes. It appears my partner was practicing with three bottles of Scotch at a pub last night and completely passed out… He’s just woken up. I must go.”
Holmes: “Well, Watson, there goes another mystery. It could have made us famous. Damn!”
You get the picture. It’s a bleak one if you’re attempting a novel with a contemporary setting. The only person who’s pulled this off successfully is Steig Larsson, and even he made sure that the characters in his books conveniently kept their cellphones switched off whenever it was time for the plot to move forward.
I think there might be a lesson for us hidden there somewhere…