The Seymour Tapes
London: Viking, 2005
Reviewed by K. J. Hunt
In the opening paragraph of Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (1993) Martin Jay insightfully demonstrates the ubiquity of visual metaphors in everyday speech. He focuses our attention on the complex mirroring of language and perception in Western thought and builds up a detailed picture of how it relates to the dominant scopic regime of modernity: Cartesian perspectivalism. This scopic regime combines Descartes’ self-reflexive subject of representation—the I of ‘I think therefore I am’—with the Renaissance notion of vision and representation demonstrated in single-point perspective (whereby the world is seen as though through a single unblinking eye). The result is an ‘ocularcentric’ world view that privileges and equates the I with the eye. In Jay’s analysis, knowledge, perception, identity, language and vision are shown to be intricately related; to ask someone "do you see what I mean?" is a heavily loaded question.
The Seymour Tapes is aware of this, albeit without the scope of Jay’s intellectual history of vision. However, the question might instead be phrased "do you see what I see?" because Tim Lott’s novel is based upon the surveillance tapes of Dr Alex Seymour. What’s more, these tapes are something of a legacy as the good doctor is dead—or should that be bad doctor? An average, middle-class, middle-aged, family man and general practitioner, Dr Seymour had taken to spying on his wife, his children, and at least one of his patients, as well as being involved with perhaps two other women. His story is pure tabloid sensationalism; a sex, lies and videotape scandal for the reality TV generation.
The real hook, though, is that until now the tapes have been shielded from public view, ensuring Dr Seymour’s demise has been a matter of licentious speculation. It is only in The Seymour Tapes that widowed Samantha Seymour has finally decided to release them for transcription by a "neutral observer" , chosen by her, so that the "truth" can finally be told. Of course, the process of viewing and transcribing that truth is a subjective one. As Samantha Seymour herself states, "Direct evidence can be more misleading than hearsay" —and she should know, having previously worked in public relations—so whom can she trust to edit, interpret, and structure this story? Well, apparently it is Tim Lott.
It is not unusual for a modern author to feature in his own work, John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) and Martin Amis’ Money (1984) come immediately to mind, but, given the conceit of The Seymour Tapes, Lott is perhaps unusual in placing himself so centrally within the novel. The author’s presence within his own creation enables the real world to bleed into a fictional reality, and vice-versa. This is encouraged by references to The Scent of Dried Roses (1996)—Lott’s published memoir about his mother’s suicide and his own battle with mental illness—thereby mingling factual truths with invented ones. Such references also serve to convince the reader that, by visualising himself in The Seymour Tapes, Lott is interested in something more than a self-parody or simply indulging an experimental whim. It would appear too cheap a gimmick to trade on his personal memoirs merely to achieve a superficial level of verisimilitude or to enhance a playful exercise involving structure. Nevertheless, this aspect of the trade-off between reality and fiction feels slightly awkward, despite making thematic sense as a means to explore the issues of perspective and perception.
This is because The Scent of Dried Roses is used as a sort of shorthand to show that Lott is presenting the Seymour tapes as a "genuine" slice of reality. In other words, the suspension of disbelief is aided by providing a real world point of reference. The problem is that rather than necessarily supporting a plausible fiction as a convincing reality, this approach threatens to cast doubt over the veracity of Lott’s memoir. For all that might be gained by The Seymour Tapes there is perhaps something lost by The Scent of Dried Roses. But Lott is a clever writer and there are hints that he is not only aware of this trade-off but is actively encouraging it.
From the very beginning he flags up the impossibility of setting the Seymour’s record straight, largely because "reality is too crooked" , and when Samantha asks whether Lott can be honest he replies: "I could do no more than try and… I was bound to fail" . If "pure honesty"  is unobtainable then Lott balances out this human failing by distinguishing it from the truth, which he does believe in—"at least as something for a writer to aspire to" . However, he professes uncertainty about "the ethical aspect of journalism, and non-fiction writing in general"  and acknowledges that in his own "confessional" writing he has sold off parts of his life that are "considered bankable" . He also warns the reader that storytelling is addictive, "as writers are wont to tell anyone inclined to listen to them" , suggesting rather self-consciously that a compelling narrative is always capable of being stretched a little further by artistic licence.
Such musings about Lott’s own outlook perhaps seem beside the point, but as The Seymour Tapes progresses the significance of this theme becomes ever stronger. Who he interviews, what he sees, and how he combines this information is a matter of interpretation capable of being reversed by just one more piece of footage, one more insightful interview, one more point of view. A surveillance camera can only record single-point perspective; so each time a supplementary piece of information is edited into place a new perspective is literally and metaphorically added to the story. What is missing and unknown—that which remains unseen—naturally cannot be included. Nothing is real unless it exists on tape. As Lott wryly observes, "all of these factors mean that the version of reality I have constructed is distorted" .
Inevitably, the videotapes that form the crux of the novel are only ever capable of reproducing an external point of view. For all the different angles they provide, everything is being filtered through Lott’s I/eye: the limitations of his knowledge therefore depend as much upon his own perception as what he has access to seeing. The tapes creator, Dr Seymour, had used surveillance to assume a God’s eye view—silently spying from "his eyrie in the loft room" —but, having entered the diegesis, Lott forgoes the author’s similar privilege of an omnipotent gaze. As a structural necessity he remains always in the first person, but his eye/I only ever has second or third-hand access to the story.
As the tapes are viewed and transcribed into words they are reproduced and restructured in a different medium. In a copy of a copy of a copy the notion of truth is revealed as a construction—as a series of choices rather than objective facts: Was that nervous gesture actually a false show of vulnerability? Was that laugh genuine? Was there real sexual tension at work or is it just painful self-awareness? Can these words accurately represent that image? Do we ever really know what we are seeing? The questions come thick and fast, and it would be easy to apply a range of philosophical theories to The Seymour Tapes.
Michel Foucault’s panopticon and the power structures inherent in seeing, Jean Baudrillard’s postmodern simulacra, Jaques Lacan and the creation of self, and numerous conceptions of the gaze as gendered, politicised or self-reflexive are all relevant, but are also too academic and dry to get to the heart of the matter. Do not get me wrong, Lott is clearly interested in conceptual arguments of this kind—voyeurism is discussed as a "national sickness" ; public thirst for reality television is referenced through "Big Brother" [174, 205]; and the doctor’s video diary to himself contains a "video prayer" to God —it is just that these concepts are presenting in a knowing, tongue-in-cheek, manner. The theory comes just a little too easily.
The Seymour Privacy Institute, for instance—set up in commemoration of Alex Seymore to "restore privacy in private and public life" —juxtaposes the pun from his surname ("see more") with the right to privacy, all under the acronym of "S.P.I.". This deconstructive strain runs throughout the novel, as the reader’s trust and perception is constantly challenged with each new ironic twist. Sherry Thomas, owner of Cyclops Surveillance, supplied Alex Seymour with his surveillance cameras but also "put a bug in his phone" . Even as Seymour was spying he was also unwittingly being spied upon, and, as it turns out, his wife knew he was watching her. Her recorded actions are premeditated responses, acted for the camera. So it is not just a case of "who watches the watchmen?" but who are the watchmen and where does the power really lie?
For Samantha Seymour, reality had become a performance as she stage-managed her private life for the sake of her husband, playing out the role of the dutiful wife for the not-so-secret cameras. Behind closed doors the opposite is true, or, at least, that appears to be the case. The good doctor—seen from the right perspective—is not having an affair, taking advantage of his patients, or trying to play God. Instead, it is Samantha, with her background in PR, who is the bad doctor. A spin-doctor. Spin-doctor’s are the true Gods of our times because they control, edit and transcribe the media, reshaping reality to reflect the world they want people to see. Samantha is one of them. Trained in public relations, she understands "the great Blairite truth that everything is spin" .
The Seymour Tapes is a clever novel. It is tightly structured and well paced, holding back until the very end to pull the rug out from all that has gone before. Even the three "confessions" so eloquently presented by Lott are revealed, we are told, as imaginary incidents—untruths in a three-way game of cat and mouse between the reader, the writer and his subject. With these final ironic twists, the purpose of referencing The Scent of Dried Roses becomes clear. It was to gain our trust—a way of getting the reader on side and dragging us into the same warped reality Lott is attempting to navigate. The repeated shows of self-awareness and reminders that perception is always distorted, one way or another, make us complicit in the deceptions that take place. It is a Structuralist dilemma to be within the very structure one is attempting to take an overview of, but, in the final analysis, that is also the nature of reality. The problem is that to exist that reality has to be a matter of record, whether on film, on paper or in someone’s mind’s eye. Lott might not be the most honest author, and this is not his best book, but he can tell us something about the elusive nature of truth… precisely because the stories he tells in The Seymour Tapes are not to be trusted.