D.G. Compton’s 1974 novel, also known as The Unsleeping Eye, is both eerily prophetic and very dated. It presents a world where medicine has advanced to such a degree that old age and accidents are virtually the only cause of death. When Katherine Mortenhoe, a workaholic editor in her forties, is told by her doctor that she’s one of the rare few to have developed a terminal condition, her imminent death makes her a celebrity. The vulpine TV producer Vincent Ferriman knows that Katherine’s situation will make her perfect for his show Human Destiny, in which the tragedies of the few are played out for the edification (and salivation) of the comfortable masses. Her husband Harry is game to sign the lucrative contract; but Katherine herself won’t so easily be made a victim. Yet she hasn’t reckoned with Vincent’s masterstroke, in the form of very special reporter Roddie Patterson. The high concept, which foreshadows our own age of reality TV shows and constant status updates, is intriguing, but Compton’s novel is dragged down by the fact that his future still looks, and feels, an awful lot like the 1970s.
The result is a bizarre road-trip, during which Katherine and Roddie are invited to join an orgy at a millionaire’s commune; camp out on a decaying pier; and are rescued by an enterprising Punch-and-Judy man. Compton clearly wants to draw parallels between the freedom that Katherine craves and the trap which her body has already closed upon her; he also contrasts her current state with the complacency and insincerity of her bourgeois former life. (Her supposedly loving husband Harry, feeling personally insulted by her escape, shacks up with a series of motherly prostitutes – a decision which surely felt as bizarre and tasteless in the 1970s as it does now.) Katherine’s new status as a mock ‘fringie’ or ‘transient’, living off the grid and shedding all worldly goods, is also the only way that she can be free of Vincent. Or so she thinks. In Compton’s world, while there are no ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, I sensed an unquestioning acceptance of the rightness of hippy values, while the evils of conventional middle-class comfort were laid bare under a microscope – an approach, perhaps, which helped to make the book feel so dated to me.
Let’s take it as read that the story shows its age in certain unavoidable ways – the hippies; the weird attitude to sex, with that non-sequitur orgy – and move on, because Compton does in many ways hit the nail on the head about what life was going to be like. His unscrupulous TV producers, eager to make money and high ratings out of human suffering, are cousins of the Jeremy Kyle Show or Love Island formats. He got it right, in that audiences thirst for conflict, pain and drama (and participants suffer the sometimes unbearable psychological strain of laying bare their lives). Quiet dignity doesn’t get the ratings, and so Vincent is delighted when Katherine goes rogue, and even more delighted when Roddie uses this as his cue to appear. The technology that has made Roddie a documentary-maker’s dream isn’t yet available, but we surely aren’t far off, with our live-streaming devices and Google Glasses.
While people voyeuristically follow others’ suffering, the country falls apart around them: protesters block the roads, relentlessly marching and achieving nothing, as no one takes any notice of them any more, except as a nuisance. Work is gradually being taken over by machines: Katherine’s job as an editor has become a matter of creating the correct coding to produce a bestseller via computer. One development, which I found extremely interesting, is that marriages now only last for a fixed time and can be either abandoned or renewed at every assessment point. I read, not that long ago, that this more flexible approach to commitment had been suggested by some think-tanks as a solution to divorce rates, in an age where people are living longer than ever before and may not want to commit to a single person for the whole time (I can’t remember where this was).
This is a world which both is and is not. It’s fascinating reading it from the ‘future’: some of its ideas have become familiar, others are being bandied around as solutions to modern life, and yet others – thankfully – fell off the bandwagon along the way. It is very far from being a faultless novel, and I felt that its characterisation is far weaker than its conceptual flair, but it is worth reading for anyone who is interested in exploring a low-fi dystopia, full of interesting ethical questions which seem deeply relevant in our modern world. And there are loose ends, too, which make it interesting. Skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t read the book, as it might count as a spoiler, but… Is Katherine really dying? I kept wondering whether, in fact, her situation was being manufactured for greater drama by the TV company – this would explain her doctor’s extreme discomfort, and the implication that he has been lying to her. But how does that then explain the ending?
Intriguingly, I learn that D.G. Compton also writes Gothic novels under the pseudonym Frances Lynch. It might be fun to seek one of those out at some point. As some of you will be aware, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe also served as the basis for the 1980 film Death Watch, directed by Bertrand Tavernier (according to Wikipedia, the question of whether Katherine really is dying is treated more explicitly here). I haven’t seen the film although, since I enjoyed Tavernier’s Princesse de Montpensier, maybe I shouldn’t write it off. Any thoughts from the floor, either on the film or Katherine Mortenhoe? Did anyone read it when it first came out? How does it feel to see a world which has become scarily similar to the one that Compton envisaged in 1974?