I have to admit that the title of Megan Dunn’s debut book Tinderbox didn’t immediately conjure up images of containers for fire-making equipment. Instead, being firmly rooted in the twenty-first century, I imagined a much more versatile box, a smartphone, on which the dating app Tinder was installed. The red and white cover of the slim Galley Beggar Press volume enhanced this initial impression. The two are related, of course, in that the app supposedly kindles fires between the user and potential matches.
It turns out, however, that Tinderbox is neither about flint and steel nor online dating. Instead it’s about the rise of the Amazon Kindle, the fall of the chain bookshop Borders, and a feminist re-write of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Tinderbox is also the title of one of Hans Christian Andersen’s violent fairy tales featuring a physical tinderbox with which the protagonist can summon three large dogs to do his bidding. Maybe they were precursors to Bradbury’s mechanical hound that assists the firemen on their book-burning sprees.
Dunn’s Tinderbox opens with Bradbury’s first sentence, ‘It was a pleasure to burn.’ I only knew this from shallow pub quiz knowledge: match the following opening sentences with the corresponding novel. It was the best of the times, it was the worst of times. All happy families are alike. She would buy the flowers herself. I may well have been one of Dunn’s many Borders customers to whom she didn’t sell Fahrenheit 451. And since, as a reader, I have vowed to diversify my book shelves I won’t be buying it anytime soon. Equally, in my much shorter experience of being a bookseller, I haven’t sold Fahrenheit 451 either, although I don’t think this is a reaction against dystopian fiction in general. Maybe the new movie adaptation coming out this year will revive its book sales, much like the Hulu TV series of The Handmaid’s Tale helped boost the sale of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 original novel.
Despite this, the image of burning books – burning being used as both a verb and an adjective – is a well-known one. From the library of Alexandria turning to ashes, to the Nazis’ looting and burning books, to ISIS burning down the library of Mosul University, the act of incinerating history and knowledge is pervasive. This is partly what makes Fahrenheit 451 an enduring classic, ‘still prescient today’, as though sixty-five years ago anti-intellectualism was less rife than today.
But while Bradbury’s novel was a success, Dunn’s attempt at a feminist version written from the perspective of Mildred Montag, Guy Montag’s wife, was a failure. And Tinderbox is, in part, an exploration of failure. Dunn set out to write her novel during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The aim was to put 50,000 words on paper, or into a word processor, in a month. The idea being that a novel written so quickly wouldn’t be perfect but at least there would have been something to edit. Dunn quotes Jodi Picoult’s advice that ‘you can’t edit an empty page’. While that’s certainly true, it raises the question why so many things are seen through the lens of competition, either with others or oneself. On the one hand, I completely understand because I am also motivated by rewards and recognition. Reaching the final 50,000 word count on time, amongst a thriving online community, would certainly feel good.
Instead, Dunn latched onto a classic, trying to give it a new spin, much like Jean Rhys gave Rochester’s wife, Bertha, a new life in Wide Sargasso Sea.
On the other hand, I don’t think any amount of pressure can squeeze a classic out of you if it’s either not there in the first place or ready to come out. Throughout Tinderbox the phrase, ‘the timer went off’, is used repeatedly to indicate the time pressure Dunn put herself under, giving herself thirty to sixty minutes a day for the novel before going to work in one of the Borders branches. Paradoxically, Dunn, originally from New Zealand, also confesses that, ‘in London [she] started to write because it was cheap. Writing cost [her] nothing other than time. […] The laptop became [her] tinderbox. [She] struck words from the keys. Writing kindled early memories.’ It seems she started writing for the sake of writing without a story dying to emerge. Instead, Dunn latched onto a classic, trying to give it a new spin, much like Jean Rhys gave Rochester’s wife, Bertha, a new life in Wide Sargasso Sea. ‘Why,’ Dunn asks, ‘wasn’t I more like Rhys? Her prose was incandescent, her point of view beautifully sustained throughout that short brutal novel. Brontë’s Jane Eyre was the pyre on which Wide Sargasso Sea burned. Even if Rhys was bat shit mental.’ (I wonder if Dunn read this article.) Somehow Dunn got distracted re-watching François Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. Tinderbox chronicles that distraction, with a resultant critical analysis of both the book and the movie, spotting differences between the two and giving thoroughly researched insights into their making.
Dunn ends up with an eloquent work of creative non-fiction. This is not to say that many people who want to be story-tellers and novelists, Dunn included, don’t have the potential. I think it’s just that our expectations are very high. Many of us yearning to be writers are first and foremost readers, such that our standards of literature range from secondary school syllabus to Nobel prize winning (a competition again). We, as serious readers and booksellers, scorn each new Jodi Picoult that feels ‘about as sincere as a cheeseburger’. At the same time the weight – intellectual, cultural, aesthetic – and ‘oppressive word count’ of Dostoevsky and his ilk, which are simultaneously stifling and worth aspiring to, are part of the reason Dunn fails to write her own novel. Instead she is brave enough to let us partake in and understand her failure in the form of Tinderbox.
Failure as one of the main themes makes Tinderbox highly relatable. Failing to hit the 50,000 word count. Failing to make a romantic relationship last. Failing to single-handedly keep a chain bookstore from going into voluntary administration. Failing to navigate loneliness in London. These autobiographical sketches are relatable and therefore also frustrating. The sense that Dunn wanted to achieve something bigger and better is palpable. She digs up Fahrenheit 451’s English Professor Faber who ‘describes books as containing pores; his speech helps to fan the flames of Montag’s literary awakening. […] His metaphor about books containing pores was spot on. Everyone wants to write a novel that breaks out.’
So now that Dunn has freed herself from writer’s block by exploring, from a personal vantage point, her own failures and coming-of-age, we can hope that the story she wants to tell will emerge unfettered by the constraints of Ray Bradbury’s classic.
Megan Dunn studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia, graduating in 2006. She won an Escalator award from the New Writing Partnership (now Writers’ Centre Norwich). She lives in New Zealand, where she is well known as a visual arts reviewer. Her first book, Tinderbox, was published by Galley Beggar Press in autumn 2017.
Victoria Wang is a PhD student at UCL/The Francis Crick Institute. She also makes time to read and sell books, and write about science and fiction. @vwang93