The great trap awaiting novelists who embark on a critique of media—new or old—is one Baudrillard might have recognized as the pop-culture consumerist hegemony. The observer becomes devoured by the thing being observed and the results are so broad, lurid, salacious, and in all ways colonized by the corruptor that object or character and backdrop merge. Compton’s terrible insight, into both Katherine’s interior world and—through an account that amounts to a confession—into Roddie’s view of events, shows us that interiority can trump the voyeuristic tendencies of the camera, the coarsening that would have otherwise leached away the private, the personal.
Few fictions, in theory, date faster than novels that grapple with media, except perhaps films on the subject. Furthermore, of late it’s become clear that novels incorporating the very latest media—text messages, Facebook comment threads—tend to be compromised by such inclusions. The surrounding text seems poor in texture, devoid of richness. Perhaps this is because, as John Durham Peters writes in The Marvelous Clouds, “We live in a palimpsest of new and old. Despite occasional prophecies of decline, the most fundamental media are still with us.” But perhaps instead, as he further notes, media is still learning not to be afraid to die, and that detachment, not documentation, is key.
If nothing degrades or evolves faster than media, then nothing can seem less epic in scope than the intimate details of an individual’s death—especially the death of a citizen who isn’t a great civic leader or historical figure. But in this regard, too, Katherine Mortenhoe seems even more important today than when it was published. In a very real sense, the progress of Katherine’s deterioration, the societal denial of death itself carries the novel forward into the modern era.
Big themes, like love and death, are what we say we value in our best literature. But in fact, the best novels about love or death often go unappreciated; they make us too uncomfortable. Great writers, like D. G. Compton, understand, too, that the unfolding reality of an important theme never exists at some portentous or weighty level; it can only come to life within the deft, nimble specific details of character and setting.
Perhaps the greatest testimonial to The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe and the power of an interior life is its strength in comparison to the 1980 film version, Death Watch. An earnest attempt, the film hasn’t dated well in some ways and can never match the intimate interiority of the text. You could argue this falls to the choice of director and cast, or something in the script, but I think that in writing a commentary on our relationship to media, the public world, and the dangers and limitations of an ever-watchful recording eye, Compton hasn’t just written a masterpiece. He’s also written something that is, ironically enough, deeply and forever unfilmable. There will always be an inner world that no one can see and that cannot be expressed except through the medium of words.
This article has been adapted from the introduction to D.G. Compton’s reissued book, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe.