The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, page 1
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D. G. Compton
No copyright 2013 by MadMaxAU eBooks
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Although it could hardly be said to exist at that time, ‘Reality TV became a talking-point and cause for concern in 1974, following the broadcast of An American Family, a fly-on-the-wall documentary series which aimed to capture the truth of real people’s lives and relationships by focusing on the Loud family of California. It was just one series, but it seemed a portent of the future, when there would be cameras everywhere turning ordinary people into celebrities and serving up their problems, conflicts and emotions as entertainment for the masses.
I was a television critic as well as a science fiction writer in the 1970s, and remember that even though An American Family had few imitators (in Britain there was The Family a year later) -partly because it was a slow, expensive, labour-intensive way of making programmes with the technology of the day — the series had a powerful effect on the popular imagination. It led to arguments and discussions about the influence of the camera — and implied audience — as catalyst rather than a passive recorder; as something that created the very drama it was meant to be observing, by inspiring people to perform. If they weren’t being watched, would Pat have demanded a divorce from her husband of twenty-plus years? Would their son Lance have come out in public as gay? Critics and commentators wondered about the alienating effect of lives played out on screens, about exploitation, about the truth of this so-called ‘reality’. Privacy and relationships were being destroyed and the pain of real people turned into popular entertainment — to sell more products (in fact, An American Family aired on PBS, a non-commercial network. But we thought we could see the way the wind was blowing).
D.G. Compton’s novel, first published in 1974, was part of the Zeitgeist, possibly even ahead of the curve. In the US, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe was published under the simpler, more sinister title The Unsleeping Eye. The eye in question is that of Roddie, a visual journalist so convinced by his own ability to capture the truth on film that he’s had his eyes replaced by cameras, enabling him to get up close and personal without his subjects realising he sees things they might rather hide.
Roddie has been hired by NTV to shoot the latest edition of a documentary series called Human Destiny which follows the experiences of people confronting the ends of their lives, with the high-sounding aim of ‘total truthfulness about the human condition’. In this near-future Britain, developments in medical science mean that almost no one dies of anything but extreme old age (unless they are hit by a car), and as a result the public is ‘pain-starved’. People’s need for some sort of regular psychic jolt has made Human Destiny the highest-rated programme on television. Stricter privacy laws also mean that the TV companies and newspapers find it hard to exploit the pain of others without buying their consent.
But Compton’s real interest here is not issues of privacy, or the future of the media, or whether watching TV is bad for you (although he has his viewpoint character say, ‘Certainly human behaviour had changed since the coming of TV behaviour’), but rather with the eternal question of how we are to live, how to be true to ourselves, whatever happens.
Katherine Mortenhoe knows she will soon die; the problem she faces is how to make the best use of her final weeks. What matters the most to her? Roddie is determined to find out. At first, his interest is only professional curiosity and their relationship is one of mutual deception, but that changes, along with Roddie’s realisation that it is not enough to present unmediated images and call it truth: it’s the mind behind the eye that gives meaning. He must, as urgently as Katherine, make a decision about what really matters.
There was no Internet in 1974; no Twitter or YouTube or Facebook; video cameras were large and bulky objects, and even the cheapest films were expensive to make and distribute. Today’s reality, when almost any college student can make a video in his own room, with no budget, and display it to a world-wide audience within minutes for no financial reward, was a development I don’t think anyone could have imagined back then.
But questions about how to live a meaningful life have not gone away, and will never be satisfied by changes or improvements in technology. The story Compton tells is a bleak one (although enlivened by his sharp observational humour), yet, in the end, unexpectedly conveys a message of hope. Love and honesty matter more than money or fame, and redemption is in our own hands, whatever they try to tell you on TV.
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Katherine Mortenhoe ... So now I had a name to work on, and a case history. I also had NTV’s background report. The last two would be of little help. The facts in the case history and the background report — chopped arbitrarily, like photographs, out of continuous time for the neatest of reasons — were therefore untrue. Untrue, that is, in the largest sense.
The name was more useful. Mortenhoe being the surname of her first husband retained into her second marriage and preferred for some reason to her maiden name, it must at least be indicative of something. . . . Affection for Gerald Mortenhoe, perhaps? Or for the state of being Mrs Mortenhoe, of having been Mrs Mortenhoe? Or possibly simply indicative of a need to be polysyllabic. Her second husband’s name was far duller.
I was picky over the name because it was all I had to go on, all I had that was continuous and entirely hers. I had this thing about continuity, you see, having long ago decided that people were only true when they were continuous. As an attitude, an approach to my job as a reporter, it had done me very well. It had got me where I was at that moment. Also it was a game that filled in the time nicely until the arrival in the flesh of the only true, continuous Katherine Mortenhoe.
It will be noticed that I was at that time very much concerned with what I saw as the truth.
I had read the case history and the background report over coffee in the NTV canteen. The facts in them, partial though they were, had aroused in me a compassion that regrettably my more recent thinking about the name was rapidly dissipating. I was coming down in favor of the need to be polysyllabic, and that sort of status-seeking bored me. Now I sat with Vincent and waited for the only true Katherine Mortenhoe to appear on the other side of the one-way mirror. I don’t remember that I asked him his opinion of the matter. I had prejudices enough for both of us.
Monkeys seldom sit. Likewise, only even less so, bare-assed Homo sapiens, man in the Garden, man before the Fall. His rump just isn’t that tough. So it might be said that the ease with which today we park our bald and flaccid bums at the slightest excuse represents the finest flower of our civilization. Be that as it may, at that time whenever I sat and became aware that I sat I felt squalid. I felt lax, despicably passive, as if my ass were some gigantic parasitic sucker clapped onto the rest of creation. I would fidget. I would lift apologetically first one side and then the other, proving it wasn’t really so. I would fancy I could hear the plop.
‘Nervous?’ said Vincent, smiling his smile.
Since I had in fact been thinking entirely about the name Mortenhoe and what it might signify, the shifting had to be a neurotic reflex. I settled both cheeks firmly to suck.
‘I just hope I’m not going to hate her,’ I said.
‘I never mind a bit of involvement. You know that.’ Vincent liked his interviewers taking a positive attitude. It made for brighter viewing. But the program we were planning this time was rather different. If the thing went according to plan, and Vincent’s things always did, I was going to be sitting on Katherine Mortenh
‘I’d rather like her,’ I said. ‘For both our sakes.’
And that was how I really thought of it — sitting on her, I mean. Which shows just how subliminal you can get. Vincent lit a cigar. It was put about that he had them custom-rolled for him. Put about by whom, I wondered.
‘Just so long as you steer clear of the mush,’ he said.
He was joking, of course. They wouldn’t have spent that much money on a mush-merchant... I remember looking up at the monitor in the corner above the one-way mirror, and finding it still disturbing that I shouldn’t see in it the face I had seen in lash-up studio monitors from Nova Zembla to Bangkok. The face, eyes off camera, that was my external measure of self. For what it was worth: faces too were pretty horrible things if you really looked at them. But there, still disturbing me, in the monitor in the corner above the one-way mirror was a picture of the monitor in the corner above the one-way mirror. And in that, a picture of the monitor in the corner above the one-way mirror. And in that . . . But where, in all that mirror trickery down to infinity, down to the smallest significant pattern the tube’s 605 lines could produce, where in all that was I?
Idiotically, I tried looking away, and then back again quickly, as if I could catch it out. I knew it was idiotic, but I tried. The image naturally (unnaturally) remained the same. In the monitor above the one-way mirror, the monitor above the one-way mirror. I closed my eyes. My eyes.
When I opened them again I looked instead through the mirror into the office beyond. Dr Mason had his ball-point upright on the desk in front of him. He slid his thumb and forefinger down it, then turned it the other way up and slid his thumb and forefinger down it again. If I concentrated on my peripheral vision I could just make out the monitor image of Dr Mason as he turned his ball-point the other way up and slid his thumb and forefinger down it again.
Image-framing, they called it. Fiendishly clever, these Micro-Electro-Neurologists, MEN for short. Which, if you’ve ever met one, is one of my better jokes.
‘Headache?’ said Vincent.
I didn’t envy Dr Mason his first bite at Katherine Mortenhoe. With what he had to tell her, and bearing in mind her previous case history, he could expect flailing and wailing. Suffering nobly born would bring out the best in me, and I’d willingly hold out a (professional) hand in its direction. But suffering wallowed in, suffering without dignity — in short, flailing and wailing — would shut me right off. It was like an animal’s — except that animals you are allowed to put down.
‘Are you still getting those headaches?’ Vincent said, a little louder, frowning his frown.
I’d had more than enough of people asking me about my headaches, about the tingling in my extremities, about my nasal passages, about the frequency of my bowel movements. If I’d listened to them I’d have walked around the last three months with one finger on my pulse and the other up my rectum. And made half-hourly reports on what I discovered.
So, ‘Only when I laugh,’ I said, but not sharply. Vincent was my Program Controller.
The mirror must have been thinner than it should have been: Dr Mason cocked his head on one side and winced. As if he were the one with the bloody headache.
Vincent nudged me. ‘She’ll be on her way up now,’ he said. It was a ventriloquial trick, the words reaching precisely to me and not a centimeter farther, while his lips barely moved and his eyes were fixed on the far corner of the room, a trick learned at cocktail parties and official executions.
I turned to him and said, loudly, ‘I thought this mirror was supposed to be soundproof.’
Dr Mason looked sideways in my direction, not at my eyes as he would have done if he could have seen me, but farther down, somewhere around the knot in my tie. He shook his head reprovingly and I’m afraid I put my tongue out. Vincent pretended it all wasn’t happening. Dr Mason went back to his ball-point, sliding his thumb and forefinger down it and turning it the other way up.
‘It would have been marvelous,’ Vincent said, invisibly, ‘to have been able to use this. We tried a reconstruction once, you know. But it doesn’t work.’
‘It wasn’t that it lacked spontaneity. And the chap was most cooperative. He seemed genuinely to be reliving it. The agony, you know.’
‘But we couldn’t use it. We knocked it around the office a bit, and then said no. Use just one reconstruction and you’ve lost. Lost credibility.’
If I’d said ‘I know’ just once more I’d have been pushing it. Taking advantage of my position. A man, a sensitive man, who is fire-proof in an organization has an obligation to be mannerly . . . They could see to it that I never worked again, of course, but it wouldn’t get them much of a return on their investment. And they’d never get the insurance company to pay up the fifty thousand they had on me. On the reliable, sensitive me.
‘It’s a pity,’ I said instead, ‘that there isn’t some way of signing subjects up in advance. Telling them some story, just to get their names on a bit of paper. Then we could use it right from kickoff.’
‘Now you’re suggesting that we mislead the public.’
We both laughed, neither of us — at that time with the slightest shade of irony. The idea was preposterous. Even if we’d wanted to, which I at least, with my concern for the truth didn’t, even if we’d wanted to the idea was still preposterous. The Civil Liberties Act, the Invasions of Privacy Act, the new Government Code, all these made — and still make — the game on the face of it not worth the candle. The legislation was basically of our own making, and for our own protection, and we’d have been mad to think of bucking it. That way led straight back to Stevenson’s Last Stand, and that — though we media men made jokes about it — wasn’t funny. Not that it hadn’t been his own fault, but one still doesn’t like to think of that sort of thing happening to a colleague.
I wondered, in passing, if he’d ever got his mike out from where I’d heard they put it. Possibly Vincent’s thoughts had been following mine, for we both laughed again, though less easily.
The intercom buzzed on Dr Mason’s desk. ‘Mrs Mortenhoe to see you, Doctor.’
He put away his ball-point, checked in his desk for the computer printout I’d seen him put there not five minutes before, blew his nose, wiped his eyes, and cleared his throat. He was leaving nothing to chance, our Dr Mason.
‘Show her in, please,’ he said.
His checking for the printout had reminded me of probably the best computer joke I’d heard. There’s this fella, see, goes along to his doctor for a diagnosis. Spots, pains, odd sensations, you build up the middle bit how you like — symptoms the wilder the better. Anyway, the doctor writes it all down, and feeds it in. Long pause. Flashing lights, whirling tapes, clicking relays. Finally the computer spits out one of those long blue diagnosis printouts. Only this one’s only got seven words on it. Just seven words. ‘That’s marvelous,’ the fella says. ‘What’s it say?’ The doctor passes the printout across his desk. The fella doesn’t dare look. ‘Tell me,’ he says, ‘tell me what it says.’ The doctor looks down at the paper. ‘There’s — a — lot — of— it — about,’ he reads.
I had time, before Katherine Mortenhoe came into the office, to wish that her computer, too, had had a sense of humor.
Suddenly, out of the blue, the Medical Center had rung her.
Always, in the past, it had been she who rang them. Always a little ashamed, and therefore sharp. Naturally Dr Mason was a busy man, but she was busy also. And she, not he, was the neurotic. And if he didn’t prescribe some new capsules for her (placebos, whatever they were) she doubted if she’d be able to carry on to the end of the week. She was proofreading the new Celia Wentworth or Aimee Paladine or Ethel Pargeter — always a preempting self-mockery in her voice — and it had to be in by Friday. And always they were very kind, and fitted her in the same afternoon.
There were other things she didn’t say. That her work was demanding
These she saved for Dr Mason’s ear alone. He knew her, and knew she had no need to bolster herself in the eyes of others.
And then, suddenly, out of the blue, there was the telephone call from the Medical Center. They said they saw she was booked for the following Tuesday, and were just confirming arrangements.
She’d made no such booking, she said, and she was sure there must be some mistake.
They agreed that a mistake was more than possible, but said the slot was available all the same. Perhaps she’d like to make use of it — periodic chats with one’s doctor did no harm, they said, even if one was as fit as a fiddle. (‘They’ was actually a youngish man, and kind sounding. But his kindness was professional, and he’d been engaged on its account. Her only way through the professional carapace was Dr Mason, who cared.)