2 February 2021

‘Science does sadism and narcissism just as well as Art’: Rachel Genn on writing What You Could Have Won

Posted by Rachel Genn

Rachel Genn’s second novel What You Could Have Won (And Other Stories) was one of the small press highlights of 2020. Inspired in part by Amy Winehouse, the book explores fame, addiction and toxic relationships. Below, Genn discusses how the novel came to be and how her own background in science informed the book.

In WHAT YOU COULD HAVE WON, Dr. Henry Sinclair wants to revive his reputation in Psychiatry and so he transforms Astrid, an up-and-coming singer, into a drug experiment. My interest in addiction to regret runs throughout it. Writing about addiction for me is a mash-up of the abject, surreal and sublime which is a good fit for my experience. Then again, I am a butcher’s daughter and I learned a lot of what I know about love in abattoirs.

It’s a relationship novel, which is to say it’s a novel about power, but it’s not a straightforward one. And it started as a short story about how a relationship degrades over a box-set of The Sopranos.

I had jumped over to Science to avoid jealousy, pity—you know, the stickier emotions, but it turned out to be just another hotbed of bullying, inequality, ritualistic hazing, envy and revenge. Science does sadism and narcissism just as well as Art.

A friend described this book as "Filthy, Glam and Strange." Scientists are susceptible to the drag of glamour, like Henry’s chance discovery of ‘Birdboy’ in the book. John Berger describes glamour as ‘the happiness of being envied’, which couldn’t be more Henry.

My research was on brain pathways of ‘wanting’ versus ‘liking’. Wanting what we no longer like often leads to regret, a theme it seems I will never be able to leave alone. To regret, we need to hold in our minds dual possibilities (WHAT WE COULD HAVE WON), had we chosen a different option that was available to us. It’s a killer but what are we prepared to do to avoid it? In the case of Henry, the very idea of being vulnerable enough to be in love is unbearable. Anticipated regret keeps him in check, whereas it is the sting of it that lures Astrid in.

Henry has a definite idea of how science should shape itself around him. Apart from the politics, I had always been drawn to those cases in science that were poetic; amalgams of the comic and tragic that I would solder into the fiction I was hammering out. For example, Henry wants to be famed for discovering Birdboy —the teenager without eye-movements who moves his head with small jerks like an eyeball to make up for it — but his boss steals the glory Henry feels is rightfully his. ‘Birdboy’ is storytelling gold. I believe that fiction based on scientific findings can discharge reality without compromising the integrity of the fact, and often defer to Hilary Mantel who, when questioned about how much she relies on history, states that History is not shapely. That it is her job to make it shapely. I feel that way about Science. It turns out that I like sproof: spoof proof. I must say, I enjoyed focalising through Henry, I found it cathartic and it helped me get over how science had betrayed me. It’s through Henry that a lot of the bathos and the sharpest parts of the social satire of the novel take shape.

When I look in the rear-view mirror, I catch that perhaps what I had hoped Science could do was hide my body, its desires (and the world’s responses to them) away from me, because the version of womanhood that was offered in mainstream culture was absolutely unrecognisable to me as an option. I hoped Science might relieve me of my body and hang it on a peg in the lab. I heard of a beautiful Japanese children’s story about a nursery where dogs hang up their arses in the cloakroom and put the wrong ones back on for home-time. Hence a lifetime spent sniffing others’ to find the right one again.

What You Could Have Won is published by And Other Stories, priced £10. Order your copy here.

Books mentioned in this blog post