Choose your own adventure

John Lanchester's Capital is being marketed through a nifty personalised website - but will it work?

Book marketing has taken a new, digital turn. To accompany the release of John Lanchester's novel, Capital, a 500-page brick of a book tracing the diverse lives populating a street called Pepys Road in south London, Faber and Faber have, with the help of Storythings, created a website: pepysrd.com created to encourage readers to interact with the themes of the novel, and ultimately buy it.

Click on the link and you'll see that the site plays immediately to the greatest of English middle-class weak spots: financial self-interest and obsession with house prices, as it asks you to fill in a form saying where and when you were born and where you live now, and then tells you how much property value has inflated. To gain such insight you have to fill in your email (obviously) and in return, receive a free download of the book's preface, and the promise of ten original Lanchester mini-stories delivered to your inbox, in a choose-your-own-adventure style process where you eventually discover how your life pans out over the next ten years, and, I presume, if you are destined to live in splendid wealth or lounge in the gutter.

Still - despite the wince-inducing initial hook, the process seems to be genuinely interactive and cleverly thought out. On the Storythings site there's some interesting background to the idea - including the obvious point (but they're right that not enough sellers think of it) that any marketing device should encourage people to engage with the thing they're being sold: "The first and most important goal in Pepys Road is that we wanted people to read" -- hence Lanchester's new stories. The creators also credit the online diary site, Ohlife, as inspiration in the way it encourages the user to repeatedly use the service, and connects you with your previous interactions. Storythings want to lock you into the world of the novel over an extended period of time - a neat idea, but I can't help but think people might enjoy playing with the website and receiving mini-stories without feeling the need to go to a shop and buy the actual book.

The other question is whether such a cute device would work for any other novel. There's something about Lanchester's work - reviewed by Leo Robson here - that lends itself perfectly to such an idea. It is, as Robson says, preoccupied with the "surface" of life - where we live, how much we earn, what we do. Faber are also lucky to have a writer willing to engage so proactively with a marketing process. A more elusive piece of writing, and more retiring author, might struggle with such gimmickry.

Still, as gimmickry goes, it's original and engaging, and feels more carefully considered than some of the tricks publicists pull. It's encouraging too that reading and writing are the central, motivating ideas - for all the changes in how, where and in what format we read, it will always boil down to there being a writer and a reader, and words on a page.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times