Shalene Gupta spent years on the biscuit-marketing assembly line
For the longest time I wanted to be a novelist. I read and voices, sharp and sweet, filled my head. I wanted to be a novelist like the love child of Jane Austen and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, a Herman Melville who doesn’t drone on about whales, or a ringing voice on a clear cloudless day—hello? hello!
You were born too late, they said. The time of the novel is over. It died sometime last Wednesday. It went the way of the dinosaurs, but without the dignity.
They took me by the hand and steered me down streets where I saw people sitting side by side looking down at their phones. In their hands they held tiny pictures of the sky while they texted strangers—I am lonely, where are you? Where are you?
You see, they said. I saw.
Design an app, they said. That’s how it’s done these days.
I still wanted, and as they do with all hopeless cases they sent me away to school to be cured.
At school, they taught me to be useful. I learned to fill spreadsheets with numbers, film movies on mobile phones, and code games where you pluck pears off of trees. Sometimes a few of us gathered together. We spoke quietly of the death of the novel and got drunk, but only now and then, because we had our futures to get on with.
In the end, school only half cured me. Late at night, after coding, filming, and filling out spreadsheets, I scribbled sentences on pieces of paper and arranged them into paragraphs. A waste of time, I knew. But I still did it.
So they sent me away with a tablet to earn my living. I worked for a man who had convinced banks to give him millions of dollars to bake biscuits. He sold them in every grocery store and gas station. They came in red, blue, and yellow boxes stamped with his face: hooked nose and huge grin.
Every day I sat in a grey box papered in red, blue, and yellow boxes and wrote reports about why System A is better than System B at baking biscuits. At night I still wrote sentences on paper, but finished them with drawings of crisp, fluffy, and chocolate covered biscuits. When I slept, my dreams were thin and dry.
When I gave the man my reports, he tore them into pieces and watched the remains float in the air before they fell on the floor.
Again, he said. Tell it like a story. Beginning, middle, end.
I remembered my education. Not like a story, I told him, like a report. I did not add: no one cares about biscuits.
No one cares about biscuits, he said. Make them care. Then he transferred me to marketing.
In marketing they saw that I could film. Aha! they said. They sent me to factories and villages. On my tablet I filmed biscuits at birth, biscuits in their natural habitat, and biscuits in their unnatural habitat. Between shoots and editing sessions, I napped but never slept. Once I slipped a piece of paper out of my pocket, then threw it away blank. Duty called.
When I was done I showed it to my boss and his banks.
They fell asleep.
In the end they hired a woman with scraggly hair who chopped up all my footage. She repackaged it as a film about the death of the plain butter biscuit which, once it went through System A, was reborn as the chocolate digestive. It was instantly popular and loved by all.
The committee cried. Some of them talked about school. Others about ducklings and swans. I too am a butter biscuit, someone wept, and the committee wrapped their arms around him. Every butter biscuit can be a chocolate digestive, they said. With System A everyone can be anything. Money poured out of the banks’ pockets.
Then they fired me.
On my way out the door, I passed the woman with scraggly hair. Who are you? I asked.
She handed me her card. It read: Part-time filmmaker. Full-time story-teller. Devoted novelist.
Impossible, I said. Haven’t you heard? The novel is dead.
She laughed at me. Words and stories still live, she said. How did the novel die?
I was so shocked I dropped my tablet and the screen cracked.
Don’t worry, she said. I cried over my typewriter when time took it away, but it gave me something else. It always does.
Then she handed me a pencil and left.
That night, telling no one except for you, I began to write the first pages of the reinvented novel.
Shalene Gupta has lead several lives. She’s been a journalist, teacher, and government employee, all in the attempt to recover from far too much schooling. She blogs sparingly at www.owlreads.blogspot.com. In her current life she resides in Boston and is writing a novel.