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Fiction: 'I Decided That Things Had Become Too Complicated' by William Curnow


I decided that things had become too complicated.

Understand, I did not want anything that followed from that. Like everyone else, I wanted only to be left alone, to get on with things. I was not someone who would push themselves forward. I was happy to stay in the background, to live a simple life, but I couldn't ignore facts.

Everywhere I looked, there was incomprehension, misunderstanding. Plenty of people bemoaned the fact, but who was doing anything about it? All I saw was complexity on complexity, people tying themselves up in knots over nothing. I found no help anywhere, no one that I could follow. If I wanted something done about it, I would have to do it myself.

I started off as simply as I could. I wrote a letter to the local paper. It did no good. Mine was one voice amongst many. None of us were heard. I tweeted and #Thingsaretoocomplicated became a hashtag for a while, but what hope did it have in that din?

I started a blog. No one read it.

I rethought my approach. It was simple, really: to change things, I needed power. So I decided I would get myself elected, but my policies were less popular than I had thought they would be. No doubt it was because people's lives had grown too complicated, obscuring the simplicity of my vision. I understood. I had been the same until I made my decision, but it didn't help me get elected. I had a fight with another candidate on the hustings. He said my policies were infantile. I thanked him. He threw a punch. I returned the favour.

Things got complicated.

I decided to simplify them. All this business with elections and policies was far too complicated. I started small, finding like-minded fellows, those for whom it was all too much. We met in the backrooms of pubs and town halls. My message was simple. I gave their world order and they were grateful. Soon enough their ranks had swelled beyond all measure, and when I took power it was they who kept me there.

Initially, there was consternation about my coup, but being a dictator I had certain advantages not available to the democratically elected man. I appeared on TV to explain my agenda. It was a simple message: I longed for the simple life, I said, free from the complications of modern living.

A lot of people liked what they heard, and they threw out their televisions and computers and microwave ovens. They smashed their mobile phones and never looked back. The complication was that there were a lot of people who didn't like what they heard too. They called me an idiot and backward and a backward idiot. They talked about progress as if it were a good thing. It wasn't my fault that they couldn't understand the simplicity of my vision.

I put much thought into the matter. More than I would have liked. In the end, though, I came up with a solution, and for a second time I went on TV to explain myself. The people who were sick of the complications of modern life were already on my side. And as they didn't have TV sets anymore, it was to the rest I spoke.

Words were all very well, I said, but it was action that really counted. I would not speak for long. I had much to do.

I started with the banks. Enough was enough, I said. And it was very popular. Who understood the language of fiscal derivatives or quantitative easing? Moreover, who wanted to understand it? Did anyone read the terms and conditions on their mortgage applications? The relief at casting off the shackles of neoliberal capitalism was palpable, but it wasn't enough. Not nearly enough.

Systems of barter sprang up to fill the gap. Five chickens for a goat, that sort of thing. I could live with that, but when people started bundling up the chicken debt and complaining that their neighbours had more than them and lived in better houses, I had to intervene. That wasn't so popular.

I pulled things back when I simplified human relationships. Lots of people liked that. They'd wanted it for years. The nuclear family, they said, that was what we needed. A return to the good old days when you knew what was what. How many column inches had they devoted to the subject?

They cheered when I introduced the new old family unit of mum, dad and two point four children. But that still seemed too complicated to me, so I did away with that too. They turned against me then, even though I told them they should be happy. No more Father's Day, no more Mother's Day. No more arguments at Christmas. No more who's feuding with whom over what Alice said at Uncle Fred's barbecue. No more in-laws.

There were riots. It got complicated.

I was back to square one. I could see that I'd done nothing to persuade a whole lot of people. I'd misjudged things, looked only at the surface. Their problem, I now saw, was that they had too many complicated ideas. I hadn't thought about their problem deeply, or simply, enough, but I soon came up with a plan.

I went on TV for a third time. I wrote articles in the newspapers. By now my audience was very small, but vociferous. I told them that I longed for the days when a man might know everything that there was to be known on a subject.

A lot of the people who hadn't liked either of my original messages joined me at that point. They too were sick of knowing a lot about a very little and very little about a lot, but it was still only a step on my way.

Philosophy was the first thing I did away with. Hume said to consign all metaphysics to the flames. I was more radical. I said: consign it all to the flames. 'I think, therefore I am' became simply 'I am' and then just 'Me?' and finally 'What was the question?' Who complained? Who really wanted to ask the great questions let alone find their answers?

I was on a roll. The casting off of the shackles of philosophy was a great relief, so I followed up with every work of literature that seemed too complicated to me. Which, to be honest, was most of them. There was more trouble over that, but not that much more. The writers wrote a lot, but there were fewer readers left than they would have liked to believe. At first they didn't notice as they scribbled away, but one by one they fell silent, their protests unread.

Religion proved the trickiest topic so far. I convened a meeting of all the religious leaders I could find and asked them who was right. When they couldn't agree, I had no hesitation in doing away with it all. To begin with, a lot of people were unhappy about the loss of their scriptures and holy places, but it was only temporary, and it all ended well when it turned out that a lot of people found their lives much simpler afterwards. When the religious leaders banded together to protest, no one listened.

Science was easy by comparison. The scientists organised themselves too late, cursing themselves that they had not joined forces with the lovers of literature and the defenders of religion. They were not hard to overcome. Anything that wasn't common sense, I discarded. If you couldn't talk about it with a stranger in the pub, I didn't want to know. Pubs went next.

I felt that we were really getting somewhere. There was much more to prune, of course, but life was already much simpler.

I got rid of the internet, though that was not as difficult as you might imagine, for a great number of my followers had already got rid of their computers. With the internet, went the newspapers. Television and radio news too. Too many opinions, too many facts. And where did any of it get you? No one missed them.

After that, art was a doddle. I closed down all the art galleries unless they could prove that there was no subtext to the works inside. I put out a proclamation: Things should be what they are, and not otherwise.

Mimesis was the order of the day, though of course no one said that. It was far too complicated. All criticism was reduced to: 'I don't know much about art, but I know what I like,' followed by a smile.

And yet somehow, just at the moment when it seemed that my vision was coming to pass, a new problem emerged.

People started coming to me with questions. They had forgotten what they previously knew, but that didn't make them happy. Now they wanted to know what they had forgotten too. You don't need to know about that anymore, I said, but it didn't satisfy them. They insisted on rediscovering things as fast as I did away with them. In a bad week the internal combustion engine would be worked out from first principles six or seven times.

It was intolerable.

I told them to stop it. The world didn't need complicating. I had freed them from that. But they wouldn't stop, so I was forced to intern them all until they saw the error of their ways. I didn't want to, but they left me with no choice. That didn't solve the problem either, because they insisted on discovering new means of escape on a daily basis, so I had no choice but to come up with complicated measures to stop them.

The worst thing was that you could never tell when it would happen to someone. They would be happily living the simple life and then one day they would get the urge to ask a question, "How come birds can fly and we can't?" or something like that, and that would be it. There would be no stopping them. And if you didn't catch them in time, they would ask the question to all their friends and those friends would ask their friends, and so on.

Everywhere complexity wanted to reassert itself. I couldn't combat it alone. I created the Simplicity Police to deal with the threat. They sacrificed much, those men and women, having to understand every complexity in order to eradicate it.

Inevitably, though, heretics rose within their ranks, lovers of ambiguity, of complexity, and I was forced to liquidate them, lest the situation get worse.

I organised a very complicated surveillance system to counter the problem. The trouble was that no one could remember how video cameras worked, or even what a video camera was, except for the people I'd interned. I had to get them to design systems to watch other people to ensure that they didn't design systems to watch other people. They weren't happy about it and it all got very complicated.

Once the system had been created, though, it turned out that the only people that could operate it were the people who had designed it, and they weren't at all happy in the first place about designing a system to watch other people to ensure that they didn't design a system to watch other people, so you can imagine what they thought about that.

It was all getting far too complicated: the people who designed and ran the system to watch other people to ensure that they didn't design a system to watch other people had to themselves be watched, but then the watchers had to be watched to ensure that the people who designed and ran the system to watch other people to ensure that they didn't design a system to watch other people hadn't passed on their ideas to them. And that wasn't even the end of it.

My life was more complicated than ever.

It was then that I learnt that a coup was being planned by my enemies, of which, by now, there were many. My intelligence networks were practically non-existent since I did away with the intelligence agencies, and I would have known nothing of it had it not been for the splits amongst the plotters.

They could not decide on an approach. Some thought I had a point, but had gone too far. Others wanted to restore the world I had thrown over. Still others thought I hadn't gone far enough. They devised endless manifestos and fought over points of doctrine. They had learnt nothing from me. Everyone had a different concept of what the world would look like after I had been deposed, and none had my simplicity of vision.

In the end, one faction betrayed the others to me and I had to put a stop to it, for it had become far too complicated. Yet even that was not the end to my problems. Some of the plotters escaped me and fled abroad, appealing of help to the world at large.

One of the first things I had done to simply things was to withdraw from international relations. Now my neighbours armed themselves. I had disbanded the army long ago, all that jargon and all those ranks being an unnecessary complication. They sent diplomats to meet me and spoke of the regrettable necessity of intervention.

I went on TV to appeal to the people for support, but no one had TVs anymore, so my message went unheard. I turned to those in the internment camps, the ones that I hadn't already purged after the attempted coup, but although they understood my argument, they were the least disposed to accept it, and I found no help there.

I had, it seemed, nowhere to turn.

The enemy was gathering on the border with mobile phones and televisions and microwaves to win hearts and minds. Within, people were inventing things like billy-o. The streets thronged with illicit bicycles and milk floats. People had taken to worshipping a small tree in Hyde Park which was said to exhibit an aura of kindness. When I had it cut down, they gathered its seeds and said that it would come again. Already saplings were being grown in secret. The scientists were at it again too. They'd only made it so far as animal spirits and phlogiston, but they'd get there.

Everything I'd worked for was coming apart. At least there weren't many choices left. The simple life I sought was rapidly approaching as I retreated into my bunker to wait for the end.

But I hadn't done any of this for myself. And as I sat there, contemplating the big red button some previous complicated soul had had installed, I had a moment of perfect clarity. I would give them a final gift.

I decided to simplify things.


William Curnow lives in London and is working on a novel, but then isn’t everyone these days?

Art by Jade Klara.