Tinderbox by Megan Dunn (Galley Press, 2017), 151 pp., $30
Tinderbox (2017) by Megan Dunn is a narrative about writing – about the writer we want to be coming up against the writer we are. About the ideas we think will come to fruition coming up against the realities of copyright and the commodification of literature. It’s about the time it takes to write and formulate ideas amongst the stuff of life.
Dunn is rewriting Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 from a feminist perspective for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November 2013. The NaNoWriMo online writing community is available to anyone who wants to write, and participants have the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by the end of the month. They can even post their word count online and watch it grow in comparison to those of other entrants. Dunn works out that she needs to write ‘1,666.66667 words per day. How hard could it be?’ she asks.
Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in the basement of the Lawrence Powell Library at UCLA. Dunn explains that he inserted a dime into the timer for a pay-by-the-hour typewriter at the library, and his fingers raced across the keyboard as his story flowed. Nine days, 25,000 words and $9.80 later, the first draft was completed. Dunn uses this timing structure as a device throughout the narrative. ‘The timer went off’ is a constant refrain – in Dunn’s case it’s the timer on her iPhone, and unlike Bradbury’s writing sessions there are many coffees, internet distractions and a lot of research interrupting the flow.
For those not familiar with Bradbury’s dystopian novel, it depicts a society where books are banned; firemen are called to burn them rather than to put fires out. The firemen also have a mechanical hound with a needle in its muzzle that paralyses its prey. The main character, Montag, is a fireman who questions the anti-intellectualism of society and seeks a different path.
Dunn posits that the commodification of books is the modern equivalent of book burning in Bradbury’s story. Kindle, Amazon and the public’s love of bestselling novels have led to the demise of satisfying literature. Having worked in a public library I can relate to Dunn’s fury with the bestselling Picoult (like Dunn, I haven’t read her either), though when I was shelving and checking-out books, mystery novels were issued the most – one customer I served didn’t realise there were other sections in the library. I could count on one hand the conversations I had about New Zealand literature in the two years I worked at the library (and all of those were about The Luminaries). Of course, innovative books are still being published – by writers Paul Beatty, George Saunders and Pip Adam to name a few – and edifying literature is still going strong, though from behind the library counter those books don’t seem to get the recognition they deserve from the reading public until they win a big prize.
Dunn’s narrative reads like a long-form personal essay. Alongside fragments of her fictionally reimagined Fahrenheit and writing process, are her tales of working at Borders bookstores in the UK (and later Wellington). Jia Tolentino, writing for the New Yorker, dates the recent boom in the personal essay to May 2008. While Tolentino thinks many of these essays, written by women, are far too personal, Dunn never ventures far into the private.
While she touches on experiencing anxiety and depression, she channels these experiences through her fictional reimagining of Fahrenheit. In one scene we’re with Dunn as she’s sent to an anxiety workshop at Homerton Hospital. This blends into her reimagining Julie Christie, in a scene from Truffaut’s film Fahrenheit 451, in a psychiatrist’s office talking about her husband. Like Christie’s, Dunn’s marriage is on the rocks. In other instances Dunn mentions depression without going into detail. So while the book feels autobiographical, it’s not with a capital A. Yet she also wants to get away from autobiography because she feels like that’s cheating; it’s not creative with a capital C.
This struggle between what she wants to write and what comes out is what I was most drawn to in the narrative. The failure of her first novel hounds her (much like the mechanical beast in Fahrenheit), and she’s aware of the weak elements of her writing (by her own admission they’re structure and plot). These insecurities are all in the soup of her creative process – and for the beginning writer, or for those who’ve been doing it for a while and haven’t yet broken through in terms of publication, her reflections will resonate.
If I were to write this review in Dunn’s self-reflective style, I would tell you that I read it on a rainy Wellington Sunday while my partner and step-child made a gluten-free chocolate cake. The fire was on. The cat on my lap. The strands on the tree fern’s monkey-tail coil held droplets of water.
Like Dunn, I have a failed first novel, but unlike her I’ve written a second that is probably on a publisher’s slush pile. To make it worse, that second novel is a book about someone writing a book, which Dunn tells me Eleanor Catton would never write. I feel like an overqualified writer (MA, PhD) without a book to my name; an imposter who at times can’t even walk into Unity Bookstore because of publishing envy.
I ate the gluten-free chocolate cake.
Dunn is a touch more light-hearted than my imitation here. She is an entertaining writer, and the narrative skips along through the sections on book displays and leaking and blocked toilets at the various Borders’ branches she worked at; the wider world filters in as Dunn documents her travel on the morning of the London terrorist attacks in 2005.
While Dunn’s writing is entertaining, that tone is carried through with her choice of research material about Fahrenheit. She references Spark Notes frequently, and while they give you the gist, I’m sure there’s a lot more commentary on Fahrenheit that could’ve been used for a bit more analysis of the novel’s themes.
Dunn does spend a lot of time talking about Truffaut’s film, which I didn’t find as arresting. She references the film because she needed to write about Fahrenheit without writing directly about Bradbury’s characters. This work-around – an attempt to avoid copyright restrictions given the novel hasn’t been out of print since its publication – does hinder a deeper reworking of the characters. Lesson number one: ask permission first. Or, write it and publish anyway?
While Dunn dismisses the idea and says she hijacked Bradbury’s book, it does beg the question as to when a character is ‘ours’ in the public imagination and not just the invention of one person. Websites full of fan fiction are testament to how readers assume the imaginative life of characters and take them beyond the final scene. I’m not sure how they avoid copyright: perhaps they just don’t care about making the writers (or their estates) uncomfortable – which is the word the Bradbury estate used to describe how they’d feel if Dunn used the Fahrenheit characters.
Dunn’s book is mega meta. It’s a book about writing a book that didn’t turn out as expected. But it’s resourceful of Dunn to keep going with the same material and reinterpret it, and make it new.
REBECCA STYLES has completed a PhD in creative writing at Massey University, where she wrote a novel based on an ancestor’s experience of mental illness at Seacliff Asylum. She’s had short stories published in New Zealand journals and anthologies, and teaches short story writing at Wellington High School Community Education Centre.