Faced with the challenge of selecting a dozen or so favourite short stories to share with you I have chosen just one. This is not simply because my choice happens to be the best short story ever written, but also because writing about it gives me (and you, my reader) the opportunity to collaborate in a modest literary experiment. This will take you about half an hour to complete, which will be half an hour well spent. Trust me. And thank you, in advance, for your time.
It’s just after 9pm on Friday January 12th 2018 (which we can, for a short period, think of as ‘last Friday’) and I’m sitting at my desk in front of my laptop, the screen of which is blank, apart from the sentence I am typing. Have just typed.
What time or day or month it is where you are I don’t know. But if you’re reading this then it must be for you as you read this, as it is for me as I type this, now. A reader and writer share a now, but it’s seldom the same now.
Earlier this evening I re-read ‘The New Accelerator’, a short story by H. G. Wells and it made me think, as it always makes me think, about time, and about literary time and how that works (when it works). Now I’m going to write – am writing – about that story and I want to do something both whimsical and serious that aligns with the spirit of the story. I want this to be an experiment in time with you, my reader. Are you ready?
First of all, whether or not you’ve read ‘The New Accelerator’ please skip what follows – apart from this paragraph of course, which I (and you) have almost completed – and click on the link I’ve just given you. Then read or re-read the story, because otherwise much of what I’m about to write will amount to an extended spoiler. In any case I need you to be gainfully occupied elsewhere while I set about writing something for you to read when you rejoin me in – well, it’s a shade over 5,000 words in length, so shall we say . . . about twenty minutes?
I glance at my watch. It’s ten past nine. You’re still reading this.
My plan, you see, is to write what follows in real time
and to involve you, my reader, in the process. I’m not sure whether this will work, or even whether it’s worth attempting in the first place, and I am in any case an erratic typist, so please read the bloody story
(not too quickly, take your time) and I’ll see you back here in – can we make it half an hour? That should give me the opportunity to knock out most of this, this . . . thing. And it really is your last chance to be part of a groundbreaking interactive experiment in literary criticism. Possibly a world first. Let’s go (again).
I glance at my watch. It’s now 9:40 here, so it should now be about half an hour later where you are. Welcome back.
To be perfectly honest it’s actually more like an hour later where I am – just after 10. I had a call from an old friend who wanted to catch up and then I found an unfinished bar of fruit and nut chocolate and, well, the time simply flew by. This means we’re already quite badly out of synch and I’Il have to do what I can to make up for that.
Did you enjoy it? The story? I hope so, and am pretty sure you did. If you didn’t you might want to give up reading this, and if you did you may find a lot of what follows irritating, or illuminating, or a combination of the two. While you were away – and before my friend called and the chocolate bar episode – I checked the Wikipedia entry for the author and knocked out the following:
‘The New Accelerator’ first appeared in 1901 and was published in book form two years later in a collection called Twelve Stories and a Dream. Wells was 35 when he wrote it, and (for what it’s worth) he died 13 years before I was born. I gave my son a copy of the story as a fourteenth birthday present, or rather a paperback edition of Wells’s short stories that included this one. It meant a lot to me (the book, and the giving of it) and also, I hope, to him, because among many other things it’s a story about time, and how we pass through it, about what it does to us, and how we spend it, or waste it. It’s about how we live our lives and it’s also about how drugs can mess with your mind.
After writing that I cut and pasted the following from a blog I wrote a few years ago:
The opening paragraph of ‘The New Accelerator’ is a fine example of solidly-crafted Edwardian prose: briskly informal, unmistakably masculine in its bluff, keen-as-mustard register, and with a hook in the final sentence that connects Wells with De Quincey and Baudelaire in the past and William Burroughs in what was back then the future:
Certainly, if ever a man found a guinea when he was looking for a pin it is my good friend Professor Gibberne. I have heard before of investigators overshooting the mark, but never quite to the extent that he has done. He has really, this time at any rate, without any touch of exaggeration in the phrase, found something to revolutionise human life. And that when he was simply seeking an all-round nervous stimulant to bring languid people up to the stresses of these pushful days. I have tasted the stuff now several times, and I cannot do better than describe the effect the thing had on me. That there are astonishing experiences in store for all in search of new sensations will become apparent enough.
“These pushful days” is a cobwebby phrase for a familiar situation. We don’t write like this anymore, because we don’t think like this anymore, not in our world of stress management, ‘me time’ and flexible working hours. At the turn of the last century, when Wells was writing ‘The New Accelerator’ there was intense interest in so-called Scientific Management, better known as Taylorism, the main objective of which was to improve economic efficiency through greater labour productivity. Time – and the relation of time to labour – had never been so rigorously commodified; it was as if time itself was now privately owned and managed. So we should relish all the more the subversive implications of Professor Gibberne’s discovery of a wonder-drug that will lead to “the absolute acceleration of life” and, of course, the absolute acceleration of death.
(I’m reminded of the depiction of a mechanised production line in Chaplin’s Modern Times, a film that might equally have been titled Modern Time.)
The setting of ‘The New Accelerator’ isn’t some bustling industrial city but genteel Folkestone, now a fading resort but then a respectable middle-class holiday destination on the Kent coast. Wells’s description of the Gibberne residence is so precise that I’m sure I’m not the only reader to have scoured the Upper Sandgate Road for a detached house with Flemish gables and a Moorish portico, a ground floor room with mullioned bay window and “an Early English carved oak gate”. My money’s on number 150, on the right as you head to the sea. Wells, having moved to Folkestone for his health in 1896, lived nearby in an imposing pile called Spade House, designed by the Arts and Crafts architect Charles Voysey. It’s now a residential nursing-home, a place for people who are fast running out of time, and visitors are not encouraged (unless, of course, they have somebody to visit).
Gibberne is boyish and impulsive but not your ordinary crackpot scientist. What he stumbles across in his researches is not the mild tonic he was looking for but a colossally powerful mega-benzedrine that accelerates the user’s metabolism thousands of times, to such a speed that his movements become too swift for the human eye to see. The user becomes invisible to us, while the world we inhabit appears motionless to the user, who is free to move around, inspecting it at his leisure. What a great idea!
But Wells, who was never short of great ideas, does remarkably little with it. As later writers would discover, narcotic writing is seldom compatible with anything as mundane as a plot. It’s
all about sensation, perception, self-absorption. It’s all in the detail. There’s no plot in ‘The New Accelerator’ simply a situation. And it’s also a description – a wonderfully vivid description – of the experience of being under the drug’s influence. The two men do little but move unseen through a holiday crowd, with a single mild act of delinquency involving a yapping lapdog. It’s they, not Wells, who seem to lack imagination. But I’m glad the author left things at that and didn’t, for instance, work it up into some kind of crime caper in which the protagonists fund an increasingly expensive addiction by invisibly looting shops and banks at lightning speed. Something like that happens in the film version of The Invisible Man directed by James Whale in 1933, and it’s a bore.
Conclusion of the foregoing. I’m getting ahead of myself, so will now slip in something else I wrote earlier in a blog about writers and drugs, to buy me some time. I reckon I currently have a five-minute lead over you.
Amphetamine was first synthesised in Berlin in 1887 by the Romanian chemist Lazăr Edeleanu who named the new compound phenylisopropylamine, but it was only forty years later that any pharmacological use was found for amphetamine, when the trailblazing American psychopharmachologist Gordon Ales re-synthesised Edeleanu’s compound and, like Gibberne, tested it on himself. In the mid-1930s Smith, Kline and French retailed the base form of phenylisopropylamine, under the brand name Benzedrine – the closest we have yet come to a commodified New Accelerator and, by Gibberne’s standards, a very pale imitation. (W. H. Auden used to start the day with a bracing hit of Benzedrine (available over the counter in New York drug stores from 1933) with a dose of Seconal in the evening to send him off to sleep. He maintained this regime for two decades, along with colossal quantities of booze and cigarettes, regarding speed as ‘one of the labor-saving devices’ in his ‘mental kitchen’.)
A euphoric Gibberne (and I’m not sure whether the name should be pronounced with a hard ‘g’ as in gibbon, or a soft ‘g’ as in ‘gibber’ and for no good reason I’m reminded of Jabberwocky‘s “gyre and gimble”, which are both almost universally mispronounced), still apparently under the influence of an earlier dose, persuades our anonymous narrator to join him in an informal trial. “It kicks the theory of vision into a perfectly new shape!” he exclaims, and this it certainly does, although it’s unclear what particular theory this might be. The preliminaries are brilliantly handled by Wells: by way of a tension-building preamble Gibberne delivers a series of practical instructions and portentous warnings, part health and safety nostrums, part conjuror’s patter. The narrator shuts his eyes and waits for the drug to kick in. When, after a minute or two, he opens them and looks around everything appears normal until he is confronted by irrefutable evidence that everything has changed, and utterly: a billowing curtain appears frozen in mid-air and, when Gibberne opens his hand to release his empty drinking-glass, it doesn’t fall crashing to the floor but remains all but motionless, descending imperceptibly slowly.
Conclusion of the foregoing. I glance at my watch. This is going tolerably well so far, but I really want to avoid summarising the story and to get on to some kind of commentary, or interpretation. So – can I ask you to go back to the story for a few minutes and read again the scene in which the narrator and Gibberne leave the house by the ground floor window and perambulate around the Leas, up until the point where they are both revolted by the winking man? Read the passage slowly – not just to enjoy the simple pleasure of Wells’s unshowy prose, but to give me time to get ahead, to write the things I think I want to say about sex and death and money. Give me ten minutes.
Tick tick tick tick tick tick tick et cetera
Welcome back, again. Here’s what I wrote while you were away:
Accelerated and disinhibited, the two men venture out together through the ground floor window and make their way a few hundred yards southward onto the Leas, the landscaped municipal gardens on the cliffs high above the sandy beach. It’s a clear, hot August bank holiday weekend, ‘every colour incredibly bright and every outline hard’.
The Leas are today slightly scruffy but pretty much as they were at the beginning of the last century, and as Wells describes them, with a bandstand, lawns and space for picnics and kite-flying – the perfect locale, then and now, for recreational drug use. The local authorities have never made much of the Wells connection, which is surprising, especially given the competition from nearby Margate with its Turner Gallery, Tracey Emin installations and the promenade shelter where T. S. Eliot could ‘connect nothing with nothing’.
Stuck, and connecting nothing with nothing, I glance at my watch. You are reading this in your time. I am writing this in my time. You can read much faster than I can write. I can type much slower than I can think. These are all issues. What time is it where you are? What time is it really? If time is (as somebody waggishly observed) ‘the random subdivision of eternity’, where is it all going to end?
Back to the story.
The world outside has become hauntingly strange or, in the narrator’s Edwardian saloon bar idiom, “deuced queer”:
An immovable cyclist, head down and with a frozen puff of dust behind his driving-wheel, scorched to overtake a galloping char-a-banc that did not stir. I gaped in amazement at this incredible spectacle.
It’s a white-flannel-and-straw-boater, Jerome K. Jerome kind of world that our two flâneurs inspect at their leisure. As social observers they are doubly disengaged because the holiday-makers they scrutinise are themselves on leave of absence from everyday life. But all is not well. An unpleasant sensation develops as they examine that static, galloping horse-drawn char-a-banc:
The effect as we walked about the thing began by being madly queer, and ended by being disagreeable. There they were, people like ourselves and yet not like ourselves, frozen in careless attitudes, caught in mid-gesture.
Time to get away from the many small wonders of the story – the bee sliding through the air like a snail; the red-faced party wrestling statically with a windblown newspaper – and to think a bit about the implications of Gibberne’s elixir.
What follows will take me about 45 minutes to type and, once typed, will take you perhaps five minutes to read, so you might want to slope off and make some cocoa while I get on with it. A suggestion – you could watch an episode of Detectorists on i-Player. I discovered this after reading Adam Mars-Jones in the TLS who described it recently as ‘the best pastoral comedy since As You Like It. He was bang on the money, and it strikes me now that, in its modest way, ‘The New Accelerator’ is also a version of pastoral (‘a work of literature portraying an idealized version of country life’) in its depiction of the bourgeoisie at their leisure in a tamed version of nature.
The apparently stalled scenes of provincial life observed on the Leas are not of life as it is lived, but a simulacrum of life. It’s lifeless, and that’s not only because there’s no movement. There seems to be no vitality
either – the holiday crowd is “smitten rigid” and what starts as a jolly high-spirited excursion soon becomes a journey through a sunlit necropolis. Esse est percipere
said Bishop Berkeley – “to be is to be perceived” – and, as the two men are moving at such a lick that they cannot be perceived by the rest of humanity, they soon begin to experience a disabling loss of self. Wells doesn’t explore this in much detail, but what he describes is a state of death-in-life, a cadaverous addict condition. The two men are invisible to the world, spectral, unable to communicate with the living, or to interact with them. In the midst of life they are in death; but also in the midst of death they are themselves excessively, chronically alive, animated corpses who return from the dead to terrorise the living. (Folkestone’s Wikipedia entry tells me that the town’s cultural highlight is an Annual Zombie walk, which attracted 200 participants in 2012. They could aim higher, although this link to the animated dead certainly resonates with a deeper meaning of ‘The New Accelerator’.
Perhaps the same people could arrange an Annual New Accelerator walk. I’m in.)
What Wells depicts, rather than examines, is the immediate freedom granted by any drug, a liberation from the quotidian that also necessarily brings the user closer to death – not only in the infinitesimal sense mentioned by Gibberne, but in a profounder, existential sense. Wells raises important questions about selfhood – what it is, how it is sustained by the individual within the social order – but he doesn’t offer answers to these questions because he’s not that kind of writer. Like his narrator he is “given to paradoxes about space and time”, but is essentially a practical man, preferring mechanics to metaphysics. As a writer he has a canny tradesman’s eye for detail – the commercial version of the Accelerator elixir will, we learn, be sold “in three strengths: one in 200, one in 900, and one in 2000, distinguished by yellow, pink, and white labels respectively”. He’s less good on character, but this is not a flaw in his short stories so much as a defining quality. The science is wonky; one doesn’t have to be a physiologist to know that accelerating the heart rate by several thousand times would be instantly fatal – although Wells touches lightly on this side-effect as if it’s simply a trade-off:
“You see,” said Gibberne, “if I get it as an all-round thing it will really do you no harm at all – except perhaps to an infinitesimal degree it brings you nearer old age. You will just have lived twice to other people’s once –“
That’s quite rock and roll, isn’t it? ‘Live fast, die young’; ‘better to burn out than fade away’, all that. Mutability and oblivion are at the dark heart of ‘The New Accelerator’ – the fear of, and the irresistible attraction towards, personal extinction expressed through a skewed romantic impulse to live more intensely. Stepping outside time is an essentially romantic undertaking, and narcotic writers like Burroughs are romantic in the 19th Century sense. One of Burroughs’s intentions through cut-ups and other ‘experiments’ was to crack time open and see what came out. Today’s romantics, obsessed with parallel dimensions as a result of their understanding (or rather misunderstanding) of quantum physics, elect to see the possibility of stepping outside time as a liberation. Drugs aid this. Conventional novels take place over time – the time taken to write, the time taken to read and the time portrayed within the story, so by breaking up the chronology Burroughs was engaged in a metaphysical battle with… well, with what? The aforementioned random sub-division of eternity? Mneh. He wanted to free himself – and us – from the presumed tyranny of linear time (within which actions have consequences) and drugs, at least in his view, offered the chance of such liberation. Burroughs, once a favourite writer of mine, increasingly strikes me as a bit of a pillock.
As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu put it 600 years before Christ and several millennia before Burroughs: “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.”
Spatial and temporal paradoxes abound in the story, either reported with relish or ignored entirely. The science is, as I say, wonky, haphazard and inconsistent. Gibberne’s flannel pants begin to singe when he runs, with a suggestion of the infernal punishment facing a scientist who flies in the face of nature, so that surely means the yapping lapdog, booted high into the air above the bandstand, should simply burst into flames (WOOF!). But to hell with anomalies. There’s an old Star Trek episode, back in the long-ago future of Captain Kirk and Mr Spock, called ‘Wink of an Eye’ and it’s a direct lift from Wells. It’s pretty good, although Star Trek fans have flooded the internet with pedantic quibbles about the science. This might lead us to suppose there’s something a bit odd about Trekkie priorities – but we knew that anyway.
Science-fiction of this Edwardian vintage is not so much a genre as an oxymoron, at least in the case of Wells who is, if anything, a great social satirist and one of the only important writers to deal, almost exclusively, with the lower-middle class, which happened to be his own class.
I glance at my watch. Ach. The above took me almost an hour, so clearly I should have recommended two episodes of Detectorists. No time left to go into Wells in detail. He was, let’s agree, a complicated, highly intelligent buffoon and a compendium of conflicting convictions: a utopian socialist and visionary who believed in eugenics, in the perfection of the race through family planning and selective culling. He was fiercely anti-Zionist, a profligate philanderer, a squeaky-voiced crypto-fascist and, for quite some time, the most famous writer on the planet. You can look him up on the internet. You can also find most of his fiction online, although my advice is to shell out on the books. But don’t let’s get started on the comparative merits of print and electronic publishing. I want to finish this before midnight.
Today medical science is dedicated to slowing down the effects of time and postponing the end of all flesh. We are all living much longer (which, politicians hasten to assure us with suspicious enthusiasm, is unquestionably a Good Thing). Cosmetic procedures, faddish diets and collective self-delusion together create the illusion of prolonged health and vigour and the semblance of youth, or at least the absence of decrepitude. We are all in a state of denial concerning the only thing we have in common. Gibberne’s potion offers benefits, but at a price:
Suppose a man repeatedly dosed with such a preparation: he would live an active and record life indeed, but he would be an adult at eleven, middle-aged at twenty-five, and by thirty well on the road to senile decay.
We are most of us likely to live long enough to witness our own physical and mental decline long before oblivion gets its hooks in. Of course we trade off experience against longevity every time we indulge ourselves in booze or fags or drugs or bungee-jumping or whatever adrenalin-boosting sensation best meets our needs or whims. But death, and our fear of death, is behind everything, beneath everything, driving everything and overshadowing and ultimately thwarting all that we do. Timor mortis
is merely the tip of the iceberg. Gibberne’s elixir brings death incrementally into the world.
Not just death. Sex. It’s a commonplace view that any new technology will swiftly be co-opted by pornographers – from daguerrotypes to Google Glasses there’s an immediate appropriation and exploitation by a huge, rapacious industry. Likewise in literature, although more slowly and relatively respectably. There’s unsurprisingly no sex in ‘The New Accelerator’ but the implications of Gibberne’s drug have been explored by, among others, Nicholson Baker, in his novel The Fermata (1994, I think) in which the central character, Arnie Strine (is it?) freezes time to engage energetically and repeatedly in opportunistic depravity, and nothing else.
Wells is a wobbly libertarian. The market, he assures us, will manage the consequences of the commercial distribution of the Accelerator:
Like all potent preparations it will be liable to abuse. We have, however, discussed this aspect of the question very thoroughly, and we have decided that this is purely a matter of jurisprudence and altogether outside our province. We shall manufacture and sell the Accelerator, and, as for the consequences – we shall see.
“This shit will probably kill us. Let’s do another line,” as Tom Waits croaked. Not just death and sex. Money. If – and this isn’t a very big if – we agree to admire ‘The New Accelerator’ as a satirical allegory, or allegorical satire, we are presented with a future society made up of two antithetical and pharmacologically-defined communities, a society built around collective addiction to Gibberne’s Nervous Accelerator and its correspondingly potent Retardant; a society in which a hyperkinetic minority lord it over a slow-moving, practically inactive underclass, doped to the gills with mental and physical sedatives; a society in collective denial of the very thought of decay and death, with a compensating tendency to fetishise youth and beauty, however artificially attained, and endorsing a state of cultural and intellectual adolescence that extends well into middle-age. Picture a society out of synch with time, and addicted to self-realisation and self-fulfilment though self-medication. Look around you.
I glance at my watch. It’s much later. Time to stop, for now.
Everything you’ve just read has been written, or in some cases re-cycled, at one sitting and without interruption (except for the phone call) and without the use of any stimulant (apart from the fruit and nut chocolate). I began just after 9pm and it is now very nearly tomorrow – Saturday 13th January. It’s time for me to turn in. If you’ve read this far you’ll have done so in a fraction of the time it took me to write it. You may never re-read it, which is fine by me, although a writer without readers is like the unperceived Gibberne on the Folkestone Leas because to be is to be read. But you will, I hope, return to ‘The New Accelerator’ during the days and months and years remaining to you, because it really is the most wonderful short story. It’s about all the big things in life – and it’s about time too.