The novel opens with a Prologue in which an unidentified narrator addresses the reader directly. His manner is amiable and whimsical, a mixture of lively-minded digression and wistful profundity interspersed with flights of poetic fancy (in the tradition of Sterne and Dickens) and quotations from other literature (in that of Montaigne). [Extract 1]
Setting out to write his own story, the Narrator begins at the very beginning: not the beginning of the tale but the beginning of the telling. He stresses the great difficulty he foresees in fulfilling his intention to render his experience of life – his own very ordinary yet miraculous instance of human existence – as truly as is possible, contending that the would-be autobiographer faces a no-man’s-land between the reality of a life lived and that of a life told. [Extract 2]
The Narrator argues that the capacity of imaginative fiction better to reflect veracity is the reason that symbolism and imagery have been such universally powerful devices in the history of human communication. ‘Have you ever come across a person more intensely real than Hamlet?’ he asks, ‘Yet his story is a flagrant fabrication, and this universal cipher of what it means to be human never drew a single living breath’. [Extract 3] (John Fist, soon to emerge as the novel’s fictionalised autobiographical subject, will share with Hamlet an inability to reconcile the categorical nature of his intense introspection with the inherent contingency of the world outside him, nor its increasing demands on him for action that compromises his idealistic fidelity.)
The novel’s first lines are the opening lines of verse of Marlowe’s tragedy ‘Dr Faustus’ (which play provides the whole structure of this novel). The notion of ‘the Muse’ appearing therein affords our Narrator a bridge across the no-man’s-land between one’s inward consciousness and its outward representation. As his thoughts coalesce around his task, and Marlowe’s out-of-time and seemingly out-of-place lines, we see the Narrator’s own ‘Muse’ forming, created by the very act of creativity. [Extract 4]
During the Prologue and under the guidance of this Muse, the Narrator’s imagination runs exuberantly free as he develops his theme of figurative truth. Even his conception that novelistic convention demands he provide a forceful and captivating opening (a purpose already defeated by his most unconventional ponderings) come at the urging of a childhood school teacher who, in the absence of satisfactorily precise memories, the Narrator’s imagination has turned into a cutlass-wielding buccaneer. [Extract 5]
In keeping with the fact that the novel’s primary source is a play, the Prologue, switching to the First Chorus, sees the Narrator begin to assume the character of the eponymous protagonist, such that, from the very first, there is an implicit blurring of identity of subject that reflects the Narrator’s musings thus far. In keeping with Marlowe, and with a wink towards the reader as the ‘audience’, this section is in the form of a dramatic monologue by the Chorus: the amalgamating Narrator/ John Fist figure.
The era is established – the late 1970s – as is the lively intelligence of the central character and his interests: philosophy, literature, poetry, music and art. The scene is John’s bedroom and we are read some lines he has marked out in a philosophical work, arguing that life is ultimately meaningless, and the more poetic and life-affirming lines John has written in attempt at a rebuttal. [Extract 6] However, and with portentous indications of impending Thatcherism, we learn that John’s meandering curiosity has most recently led him to delve into political economic theory and the philosophy of capitalism. It is his eighteenth birthday.