In the 1970s Bruce Alexander, a Canadian experimental psychologist, ran a series of tests to do with rats and drug addiction. Most people, hearing that preamble, nod sagely. I know, they say. Give a rat a heroin/sexual pleasure pump and it will lie beneath it, rat jaws wide open, and drink until it explodes. Or something. Until it dies, anyway. This is well-known. It is a fact.


Image: flickr.com/asplosh

However, most people would be speaking too soon. Some experiments have indeed suggested that rats behave in this way, but not Bruce Alexander’s. His tests were in fact designed to rebut such claims. Putting it with horrible simplicity (because my understanding of experimental psychology is horribly simple), his contention was that the drug addiction of lab rats might possibly have something to do with their lifestyle as lab rats. Rats are usually social animals, living in family nests (or warrens. Or something. Ask David Attenborough if you want precision here). Lab rats are kept in solitary confinement in cages. This, he said, might cause their dysfunctional relationship with drugs.

So Alexander created a rat park that mimicked a rat’s ‘happy’ environment (er… David? Earth tunnels? Family groups? Straw, maybe?). Hey presto, instant success. Freed from their cages, the rats shook off their drug addictions in a flash, and settled down immediately to contented suburban lifestyles mowing the lawn and admiring Jeremy Clarkson. No cold turkey, no withdrawal. In fact, says Alexander: no addiction, in the sense we understand it. Simply broken lives. Fix the life and you fix the drug habit.

As astute readers will perhaps have spotted, I am no expert on rats, drugs or Canadian psychologists. Other scientists take issue with Alexander’s findings, and that controversy is doubtless a story of its own. However, where all this struck a chord with me is in the influence of place on rats/people. The power of environment profoundly to alter them and affect the people/rats that they are.

A lot of fiction is about this very idea. Some people with a great deal of time on their hands use some of it to work out how many stories exist in the world. Some say seven, some say nine. The most draconian say two: the Quest, and Stranger Comes to Town. Both fairly self-explanatory. You go away, or someone arrives. That’s it. The only stories there are.

Now I’m not sold on analysis of this kind. It seems to me that you might as well say there are only two people who ever lived: a man and a woman. Yet over the last 50,000 years and 80,000,000,000 people (roughly the number of people who have ever lived. I read it on the internet somewhere, so you need have no doubts about veracity) we have managed a fair old amount of variety within those basic templates. Identifying common features is fun but feels to me reductive.

However, what is interesting about the Quest/Stranger idea, indeed about many of the stories we tell, is that they often concern people out of place. People removed from the warren in which they would find equilibrium and comfort, and placed in the lab, so that we can be entertained by the suffering and pain they experience. And, perhaps, the joy they feel on escaping.

This is Lear on the heath; Oedipus with his eyes torn out; Harry Potter (oh yes) in the Chamber of Secrets. This is what story analysts call the Approach to the Inmost Cave (I don’t know if the Freudian qualities of that phrase are deliberate or accidental). This is the crucible in which characters are tested, the origin of much drama, the focus of much story.

And my point – the point that this tenuous connection between Bruce Alexander and Lear via JK Rowling is designed to make – is this: I want to tell a slightly different kind of story. I want to tell stories that don’t take characters to the lab, but instead discover them at home, in their cosy warrens, and then – horribly – start to suggest that the warren is the lab. In dark corners beneath the straw there is a glimpse of the steel bar of the cage. Characters gaze into the eyes of a loved one and imagine they glimpse the reflection of a prying scientist within it. Gradually everything you took for granted starts to fall away, and the world is much stranger than you thought.

One reason I have always been drawn to this kind of story is that such, I think, is the world we inhabit. Familiar and known and prosaic, but around every corner of every street loiters the promise of mystery and adventure, and the sky hangs above our heads, pregnant with either the presence or the absence of God – but pregnant either way.

And the other is that I’ve always loved most the books where this happens: where you enter a world that seems to make sense, you feel that you belong, and then, in a sentence, a chapter, or perhaps even a month after the book is finished, you think back to that safe assumption and realise how wrong you were. A prospect opens up that you never expected, leading to a world you did not predict. At the same time the way behind you closes, and you know that you are lost, and you have no option but to follow the road before you and find a new way out. That for me, from the subtle to the fantastical, is what brings reading alive, and trying to make it happen is what makes writing a very thrilling game at which to attempt to play…

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Will le Fleming is a novelist. His debut, Central Reservation, is published by Xelsion and available now. Read more...

On a grey Thursday morning Holly lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, and wished her sister would die. Five hours later her wish came true. Read more...

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