The Big Idea: Nicholas Bowling
The Big Idea for The Follower started out as (and perhaps still is) a pretty stupid joke.
There was a point in my mid- to late twenties when my whole generation seemed to look around at our adult lives, collectively shrug and say: What, is this it? We’d either set ourselves goals that we were nowhere close to achieving, or else we had achieved them and found, predictably, that they had not delivered the satisfaction they’d promised, or in fact weren’t the goals we should have set ourselves at all, and that there were other goals, better goals, goals goals goals! but much further down the road, or on a different road altogether.
Quite a lot of my friends began to invest in self-help books and courses. At the time I rolled my eyes because I was young and cynical and not very compassionate (and, of course, completely lost myself – at least these people were doing something about it).
The stupid joke was this: imagine if, somewhere in the saturated market for books on manifesting and reframing and self-love, there was one that offered the actual, genuine, honest-to-God secret to happiness. Perhaps a self-published e-book, languishing on page two of the Amazon search results, trying to make itself heard among all the other books clamouring for attention: “No, honestly, I really can make you happy!” The thought became more elaborate, and sillier. Maybe the secret was something quite simple. Maybe it was an equation. Maybe it was linked to how many push-ups you could do, or how many glasses of water you drank. Maybe it was just a really, really nice picture of a horse.
The joke had a bitter aftertaste, though, because it seemed there was something insidious about the whole thing. I felt particularly justified in my eye-rolling when I looked into some of these courses and saw the price you had to pay to “unlock your full potential”; when my friend who had already completed one course was then hounded over the phone about signing up for a second; when the author of a book on self-esteem and fulfilled living went on to write another literally entitled: “You Are A Badass At Making Money”. The genius – and the horror – of capitalism is that it offers itself as a cure for its own malaise.
The idea rattled around for a bit. I fiddled. I came up with a dozen titles and as many opening chapters. I aborted. I clearly needed more help unlocking my full potential.
Meanwhile I noticed everyone’s search for answers had started to take on a more spiritual bent. People who had been content with a fortnightly hot yoga class were now submitting themselves to week-long silent meditation retreats, or a flying to Brazil to lick poisonous toads and talk with the spirits of the forest. It became far more acceptable, and far less embarrassing, even for a buttoned-up Brit, to admit to a spiritual aspect to our lives. But still, you had to pay for it.
This was when The Follower started in earnest. I started thinking about the collision between this new spirituality and good old capitalism. It seemed strange that the two of them should have met at all, since the resurgence of one was surely an adverse reaction to the other. You’d think they would exist in mutually exclusive universes: spiritual vs material, fulfilment vs wanting, stillness vs motion (forwards), the infinite vs the disposable, the natural vs the urban. And yet, the self-help business model is easily transferrable: spirituality and capitalism (or at least commercialism) have not only met, but climbed into bed, put on a CD of some panpipes and started massaging each other with essential oils.
These days it feels like “spirituality” is a vast and complicated continuum. At one end there are those who perhaps take a passing interest in meditation or yoga, and at the other are people who think they can talk to dolphins. (I’m on there somewhere. I practise mindfulness about once every five years and I’ve read the Wikipedia page on panpsychism.) It intersects with various groups and ideologies, from vegans to anti-vaxxers, all of them linked by a greater or lesser commitment to destroying or escaping or at least offering a brief respite from the machinery of the world as it is. This makes it a broad church. It also makes it a broad marketplace. As ever, capitalism is both the poison and the antidote: if you buy enough incense/crystals/dream catchers/organic juices/ecstatic dance courses, you’ll never be miserable again.
The Follower was originally set in London, but something about that setting didn’t feel right. In 2019, I took a trip to a town in Northern California to work on a completely different book. The town was situated at the foot of a mountain that, I quickly found out, was a kind of spiritual Mecca.
I had been off the bus for all of half an hour before a man had complimented me on the colour of my aura. That felt pretty nice. I thanked him. We kept talking. He explained that I was God, and, before I could get too cocky, that he was God too. Things took a sadder turn when he told me that he’d lost his job because he kept having seizures. He’d get better, though, as long as he kept taking his medicine. His medicine, it transpired, was plain old LSD, and was almost certainly responsible for the seizures in the first place.
After talking for an hour I went to find my accommodation. I started writing the first chapter of The Follower – the one that’s still there – before I’d unpacked my bag.
Interactions like this happened several times a day for the month that I stayed there. It was genuinely difficult to find someone who didn’t speak in these cosmic, spiritual terms. I became great friends with some of them. Believe me when I say that The Follower isn’t meant to disparage spirituality. I really am interested in panpsychism. And, as it says somewhere in the book, quantum field theory seems to be arriving at much the same conclusions as that man on LSD, though from a different direction. I also became aware of just how seductive that worldview it is – not just the idea of connecting with a cosmic spirit, but even the wilder stuff about aliens and crystal cities and Indigo Children. It’s easy to believe it when there’s no one to tell you any different. It’s fun, too.
The town I was staying in didn’t reek of money or commercial interests. It felt weirdly utopian, in some ways. But then, I thought, what if a commercial enterprise did find a foothold there? What if it became subject to the same spiritual transactions that were taking place in the city I’d left? And then, what if someone really did find a cosmic energy source somewhere on the mountain? The secret to happiness!
And I was back to my stupid joke again.