If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Scarlett Thomas has paid L. Frank Baum a big compliment. She patterned her second novel, Going Out, about a group of friends—including highly phobic Julie, and Luke, a young man so allergic to light and dirt he can’t leave his bedroom—after Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Borrowing structural elements from a 1900 novel and the subsequent 1939 film may seem an odd authorial choice for a 32-year-old British novelist. But to Thomas, it was a deliberate tactic for the novel in which she was not only crafting a narrative, but writing about narrative as well. “I was thinking about classic quest narratives,” she says, “and Luke’s life—trapped in his bedroom with only second-hand simulations of life coming via the TV and Internet—had to be told in terms of second-hand narratives.” And while Oz—both book and movie—is quintessentially American, Thomas notes that the movie is well known in the U.K.: “In a sense, Britain has become a cultural and economic and military colony of the U.S. So much of our culture is now influenced by approximations of American culture.” Housebound Luke assumes that life outside mimics the American sitcoms he watches, such as Friends and Seinfeld.
Thomas continues, “I wanted to try to get across some of the absurdity. For example, we sit around with (usually very bad) takeaway pizza, watching imported sitcoms, planning trips out to retail parks—which in no way resemble your malls, but were perhaps once supposed to. Our cities are vibrant and multicultural and you can go out and see and do exciting things. But in a way that’s what makes the retail-park culture so absurd: It’s this distance between real life and the life we are sold. It’s like the difference between narrative and life.”
Baum himself likely had politics in mind when he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, long interpreted as a parable of Midwest populism. (The political symbolism persists: Before the 2004 presidential election, pollster John Zogby predicted a John Kerry win based partly on responses to a quirky question from the land of Oz: Would participants rather vote for the Tin Man or the Scarecrow?)
Thomas—whose website, www.bookgirl.org, features a ticker displaying the running cost of the war in Iraq—offers a broader political take in Going Out. “The [book’s] central message is that you can be trapped and not know about it,” she says. What’s normal for you isn’t normal; it’s just what you’re doing. In the book, Julie expresses her fear of trains. In the U.K. we have had a lot of bad train crashes recently, but you’re still seen as weird if you don’t want to go on one. But actually, the train companies, like most private corporations, do cost assessments and work out whether it’s cheaper to install that piece of safety equipment or to pay out insurance when a few people die.”
For all its 19th-century forerunner’s influence, Going Out is rooted firmly in a 21st-century post-industrial landscape. “The pop culture stuff is like a nervous tic I’m trying to learn how to control,” Thomas jokes. She appears to have found a partial cure. Thomas conceived of her debut, Bright Young Things, as a “time-capsule novel” and packed it with of-the-moment items. When writing Going Out, however, she says, “I made a decision that I would make less obvious references—to build up a sense of a culture saturated with crap without necessarily naming the crap.”
With characters who wield emotional impact in an artificial setting, the novel recalls the so-called “Kmart fiction” produced by Raymond Carver and his peers in the 1980s. From a long list of influences that includes Art Spiegelman’s graphic novels and Marge Piercy’s utopian Woman on the Edge of Time, Thomas singles out Carver’s seminal story “Feathers.”
Thomas’s latest novel, PopCo, about a puzzle maker at an experimental toy company, was published in Britain in 2004. Harcourt will publish it Stateside in 2005, along with her next book, currently a work in progress. With this kind of trans-Atlantic exchange, it won’t be long before emerging American writers begin fashioning their work after that of Scarlett Thomas. She’s proven she knows how to offer such compliments with style; presumably she can accept one graciously as well.