Edition: Fontana, 1981
Review number: 306
Michael Frayn is so well known today as a playwright that it is strange to realise that he was first a journalist and then a novelist. And his novels are very different from his plays, often being science fiction and written in a whimsical manner. Despite the tone in which it is written, A Very Private Life wants to say some fairly serious things about Western culture in the second half of the twentieth century.
The novel is set a fair way into the future, when humanity has split into two classes, Insiders and Outsiders. Insiders live in sophisticated houses, in which every necessity for life is provided through holovision and drugs - instead of feeling emotions at the whim of nature, when they could distress or embarrass, they take drugs to produce or suppress feelings when their expression is socially desirable. Even their holidays are taken in this way; they never go out of their houses into the real world. Why should they, when the holograms they experience can have the real world's imperfections removed?
The Outsiders, by contrast, live among the ruins of less up to date houses, and take on the manual labour of the world. They continue to wear clothes, abandoned by the Insiders, and are thought of as animals by the other class. (In a neat inversion, they wear dark glasses to be considered decent - so that others cannot know what they are thinking.)
Uncumber is brought up as a privileged Insider, but never really fits in. She craves real experience, refusing to take the drugs with her family, switching off the holographic representations of visitors. Eventually, she manages to go Outside, but then finds she cannot fit into Outsider society either.
The clear targets of A Very Private Life are the ways in which modern Western society cuts each one of us off from true human companionship. I once met some people who had worked in West Africa. When talking to a group of Ugandans about life in England, they described shopping in a supermarket. The idea of a building in which you could find all your shopping did not surprise them, for they believed England a land of marvels. They could not believe, however, that it was possible to do all your shopping there without speaking to anyone - and not only was this a fantastic idea, but it was almost immoral in their eyes.
The Insiders do not even experience anything directly; part of their withdrawal from human contact is through the use of holovision and drugs as a substitute for interaction with the potentially unpredictable real world. It is hard not to see this as a comment on the modern TV culture, not to mention the escapist side of drug taking.
How little Frayn approves of these aspects of modern life is shown by one particular incident. After some time outside, Uncumber unwittingly gets involved with a group of criminals; she is put into what is a prison for Outsiders, yet it turns out to be almost identical to the home in which she was brought up.