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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Born Yesterday

Gordon Burn

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To purchase Born Yesterday

Title: Born Yesterday
Author: Gordon Burn
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008
Length: 214 pages
Availability: Born Yesterday - US
Born Yesterday - UK
Born Yesterday - Canada
  • The News as a Novel

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Our Assessment:

B+ : compelling but not entirely convincing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 5/4/2008 Mark Lawson
The Independent . 2/5/2007 Boyd Tonkin
The Observer D 20/4/2008 Robert McCrum
The Spectator . 23/4/2008 William Brett
Sunday Times . 13/4/2008 Lindsay Duguid
The Telegraph . 11/04/2008 Niall Griffiths
The Telegraph . 11/04/2008 Matt Thorne
TLS A 11/4/2008 Henry Hitchings

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, quite a variety of reactions

  From the Reviews:
  • "The effect -- deliberate, fitting -- is of a rolling news programme, in which the anchor has to bring coherence to a stream of facts: old, new, tragic, comic. (…) (T)he novel recalls video art which morphs and mixes footage of news events. But, though librarians and prize committees may argue over what it really is, Born Yesterday certainly deserves the largest advantage that novels have over newspapers: a longer shelf-life." - Mark Lawson, The Guardian

  • "As a viewer, reader, thinker, in charged, allusive prose, Burn explores the twists and shocks of the Maddy case; the failed bombs in London and the burning vehicle in Glasgow; the floods and pestilence in the green fields of England. (…) Burn's intuitive leaps and links find an artistic shape in the torrent of reported dramas. (…) Like Woolf's, this narrative dwells on the unexpected rhymes that hint at a meaning in the madness of the urban collage. Born Yesterday is a spine-chilling Gothic tale and a ghost story as well. (…) In this brave and unsettling work, Burn again proves himself a master of liminal space." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "Here, in a pre-emptive strike, apparently inspired by an unholy alliance of Milan Kundera and Ezra Pound, he has decided that, actually, everything is fiction. (…) Burn has embarked on a stunt that he seems rapidly to have realised was mission impossible. Media studies courses and creative writing groups will be picking over the dreadful lessons of Born Yesterday for years to come. (…) Burn is a gifted writer, however. Confined in the straitjacket of a publisher's deadline, he wrestles nobly with his heap of cuttings and videograbs. How often he must have wished he had got his mind more than halfway round this idea before signing on for a kamikaze contract." - Robert McCrum, The Observer

  • "It’s as if you’re reading a secret Sunday supplement which reports the news not as reality, but as components of a fictive world. The suggestion, of course, is that a fictive world is exactly what contemporary media presents, and we, as round-the-clock news consumers whether we like it or not, are co-opted by it. (…) But Born Yesterday is still a unique project, and one that is by turns unsettling, jarring, hilarious and profound. Its major weakness is inevitably that it feels rushed -- if Burn had had an extra year to write it, so much more could have been done, but the crucial effect of immediacy would have been sacrificed." - Lindsay Duguid, Sunday Times

  • "Burn's leaps are unconvincing, and create not so much detachment as a disinclination to allow oneself involvement. (…) If I haven't offered a precis of the book so far, that's because it is in itself a summary; it recounts snippets of the world-story of summer 2007, and looks at how those snippets were mediated. It's fascinating, in parts, but its function must, I feel, be questioned. At times it reads like a pathologist's report, the anatomy of a catastrophe written with urgency, but ultimately it's "just some data", the yelling from the mediated world's bowels of one who has let himself be eaten." - Niall Griffiths, The Telegraph

  • "This is a novel as much about seeking a narrative as finding one. At first Burn concentrates mainly on linking disparate news events through the actions of media-fixated public figures. He's particularly interested in the 21st-century nature of celebrity, where political position, victim status, or connection to the royals is more likely to gain you column inches than skill or talent. (…) Burn himself appears as a character in the novel but his persona seems unable to shape the action, instead merely making connections between his own interests and those of the newspaper-reading public. (…) But in his ambition to create a new form of narrative, he abandons so much of the novelist's conventional arsenal that the book works better as prose poem than fiction. Not that this detracts from his achievement: Pound would have loved this novel." - Matt Thorne, The Telegraph

  • "The novel is loaded with what might easily be dismissed as trivia, but nothing here is trivial. Stories ramify and intertwine. The book's fastidious concern with the geometry of human affairs and the ley-lines connecting apparently disparate individuals, interests, times and places recalls the work of Iain Sinclair. The protagonist is Burn himself, albeit a blurred version of him, relegated to the third person. What he sees in the news is whatever plays to his interests: what looks like a panorama is actually subjective. (…) Born Yesterday is a brilliant and unsettling novel, reminiscent at times of the work of Don DeLillo. Some will ask whether it really is in a conventional sense a novel, but this generic elusiveness is calculated: given the fiction that so often passes for news, why shouldn't news provide the whole fabric of a novel ? Burn's is a coolly probing feat of documentary prose. It is also, in hindsight, a kind of deranged and beautiful poem." - Henry Hitchings, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       'The news as a novel ' the subtitle of Born Yesterday ... proclaims ? explains ? suggests ? The documentary novel (and drama) enjoyed a brief popularity in Europe a few decades back, while fictionalized versions of real-life events remain a popular novel-approach -- and there are always some authors who play at pastiche, (re)arranging descriptions of real-world events from other sources in various forms of collage-novels. Burn's book is something else; it does, however, still feel like an exercise in fiction, an attempt at finding form.
       The narrative comes, in a sense, from a consistent point of view -- Burn's. Yet he shifts from first to third person, from repeating the facts to directing them, a variety of camera angles, and, inevitably, tones. So, for example: "In 1995 he published a novel called Fullalove that he hadn't opened in years", and in a late-night scene he seeks it out again; elsewhere he's more directly himself -- and in the end he even tries to draw the reader into being part of the narrative: "Let's leave them" -- let us leave them -- he suggests.
       Born Yesterday is about the summer of 2007, the summer of the McCanns (and their missing daughter, Madeleine) and Gordon Brown finally taking over from Tony Blair and the terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow.
       At one point Burn seeks out Gordon Brown's house:

Asked to explain the purpose of his visit, he told them that this was proving to be a summer of disappearances, absences, some voluntary, others not; that he was interested in the idea of absence, of erasure and self-erasure. He said he found it more interesting to look at the prime minister's house without him in it, in a way, than if he was actually there.
       It's this that Burn tries to capture, in recounting the events of that summer (and, yes, part of it is also his own attempt at self-erasure, as he deals with his own presence in the text). He moves back and forth between various big-news stories of the summer, but often focusses on the background and after-effects: the stories themselves are well-known (at least in the UK), where they dominated headlines, so he can concentrate on other aspects. A sense of absence, as well as the connexions between the events (such as Madeleine's distinctive eye, and Gordon Brown's damaged one) -- "Bizarre links. Connections." -- are what's of particular interest to him.
       The book begins very strongly, with sightings of another former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, on her forays in the local park. There are a variety of other shifts in presence -- though the Thatcher-scenes are hard to top --: from the absence of Madeleine McCann to Blair ("One moment Blair was part of the national static, and the next he was gone") to shifts in image in the public eye: that of the McCann parents, Glasgow airport hero John 'Smeato' Smeaton, Gordon Brown.
       Burn presents this material very well, making for a sort of large-scale reflection on the summer of 2007. He certainly pushes it to showing that image -- media-created and -mediated image -- is everything, that this is now our reality, and he's fairly convincing in this regard.
       Yet back to the beginning, and that subtitle: 'The news as a novel '. Burn writes:
     A narrative. A story. It is this, historians, political theorists and leader-writers agree, that, more than anything, a government must have if it is going to succeed. A story. A narrative to inspire supporters and enthuse the electorate.
       Born Yesterday is full of such faux-narratives, and part of Burn's point is surely how very hollow these 'stories' are (as also highlighted by this focussing on absence and disappearance). But does that all add up to a novel ?
       Of sorts, of course. Yet even Burn seems to feel he is missing something of a narrative arc, that this is not a 'story' that can be closed with a neat (or messy or, indeed, any sort of) 'The End'. Indeed, his trying to force such an end, a TV-sign-off-like: "Bye-bye everybody. Bye-bye." just seems to make that all the more obvious.
       Burn writes so well -- and has an interesting perspective --, easily making Born Yesterday worthwhile. Yet, inevitably, it also feels somewhat unsatisfactory, not quite enough.

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Born Yesterday: Reviews: Other books by Gordon Burn under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Gordon Burn lived 1948 to 2009.

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© 2008-2021 the complete review

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