Exploding plastic inestimable

For The Good Times – David Keenan (Faber & Faber)

Bear with me. Someone where I live put two recycling containers out in the kitchen, rather than the usual one. One for raw food, the other for cooked. From now on, raw food went in the compost bin in the garden and the cooked in the bin.

Since then there have been questions over eggshells, the seemingly cooked, and hippy tea leaves. These are cooked as far as I’m concerned, but according to some, they are to be placed in the Eden of Decomposition and Beautiful Regrowth, rather than in the Landfill Hell of Rot and Eternal Death.

Under it all was Levi-Straussian deep structure. It was amusing that the original advocate of this two-bin system was French. The unconscious was fully up and running throughout this period, on both sides of the conversation, those for and against.

David Keenan, if he had lived here, might have written it up. Keenan can seemingly time travel and wander into a locale before doing there what my head did to the double bin recycling system: Keenan is a bloody good structuralist, and you need to be one to be a great novelist. He is.

For The Good Times opens in the 1981 of the Belfast hunger strike. H-Block, the end of the 1970s. But the first proof that Keenan is a great structuralist – and therefore novelist – arrives with Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. You heard right. Or rather, with the arrival of the Comocipher and the Sinatrasign.

Keenan writes for Wire magazine and this novel is often filtered through popular culture. Weird discussions about U2 and the fact that Hawkwind are completely anti-establishment bubble up, with a man called The Dark Destroller.

But this isn’t a busman’s holiday being taken on Faber time. It is essentially an act of translation. Because how could you go back and explain the roots of the split in Christian religion across the British Isles, and the shift from Fenian struggles to the IRA, and still have any words left ‘to do a novel’? The results would fail to pull you through anyway.

The pop-cultural is the universal language which the old world lingo is being translated into. It is as much an act of translation were it converted from French to English. The credits should read ‘all rights reserved, David Keenan, 2019. Tranlated by David Keenan.’

The Comocipher – and the mostly absent Sinatrasign – become tap dancing signifiers which morse the moral underworld back to us. Como is the wholesome recycling container, Sinatra the horrible waste dinner hole:

‘And fuck Frank Sinatra he was a dissolute cunt. But Como never cursed, never smoked nor drank. Plus he was always faithful to his wife.’

That Como never cursed comes straight after profanity. The Sacred and the Profane, a core that maps outwards again onto Protestant and Catholic, English and Irish, Monarchist and Republican, Enemy and Friend.

At its core this book is about the impossibility of containing the Sacred and Profane on separate plots. It comes up again and again in For The Good Times. The impossibility of containing Protestant and Catholic on separate plots – which was less impossible than mixing them, to be fair – and the impossibility of keeping the Sinner away from the Saint, even when they were in the same body.

Two young IRA go to hit up a bad debter and he’s a double of one of them. Things go weird. The binaries are always being eroded. The young IRA boys’ mams all love the queen, as the queen’s soldiers raze their neighbourhoods. The irrational is right at the surface, but the human subject is submerged in itself and so doesn’t see this. The wholesome is always slipping, you have to grab on to it before it slides into hell, redeem it, and yourself… the unconscious is always an agent: There is always ‘sin’ in Sinatra, but Como sounds a little like coma. Barney comes back badly beaten and the treatment triggers all kinds of scrambled jokes with truths in them.

The ‘troubles’ were the unconscious in Britain, a full war and the rest of the country acting like there was no war, just a bit of bother. I remember the Belfast displaced at the University of Wolverhampton. Drinkers and headcases. I remember my friend Tony’s stories about what they did more. He was properly plugged in. They were a spyhole into the secret country. Like when I go to the supposedly healthy big compost bin out back and actually look as I tip the stuff in this time. Giant green luminous slugs and crawling with worms, crawling with worms. The slugs and worms are us, not the Fenians. Writhing through we know not what blindly.

The strange hanging strips in the novel seem to contain David Bowie’s duet with Bing Crosby in 1977, as the Maze Prison horrors intensified. Bowie guilt-trip catapulted back into the world of wholesome schmaltz after years of sin. ‘Schmaltz’ is also poultry fat, it is grease. In Poland and the Ukraine, stock fats are ‘smalec’. Back to food again, the raw and cooked.

You can access that level of depth via this novel. You can take it as a thrilling, riffing ride through the darkest side of bleak Britain in the 1970s. It is both. It gives you access to either and/or both simultaneously and that makes it great art.

Another level of translation is going on which shows the greatness of the craft. Keenan knows it only takes a ‘Jayzus’ here and a ‘flappy disc’ there to tell us the speech is Irish. His use of English has just enough underlying syntax to trigger the ‘Irishness’ we already store in our heads. That’s skill. James Kelman would give you every spit of inflection. Keenan does that somehow without blistering the text with irregular spelling. I’m not stating a preference here, both are ways into the problem, and both work. It seems to thicken though, about 200 pages in. Keenan seems to bring you in gently and when you’re finished you’re talking to yourself in your head like an IRA footsoldier.

Keenan writes a sequence in which three main characters take acid and go to a Clash gig. Legend has it you can’t write sex. But the history of accounts of tripping in modern literature really does look like a landfill. Keenan pulls it off in style – and connected to the rest of the work – with barely an adjective. Which, of course, is exactly how you do it.

Other signs and ciphers, snakes, and superheroes, and the whole of the Falkland War drops in via a short, sick Simon Weston joke. That’s economy. The Europa Hotel, Belfast, is now loaded in a particular way. A character called Miracle Baby with ‘learning difficulties’ is connected. As someone who isn’t taken seriously, thought of as ‘harmless’. He gets given information. He is in the lineage of the fool who speaks the truth. It brings Lear in, and it is that savage and bloody. But there’s a sharp understanding of what the ‘occult’ is here. Someone in touch whose senses are tuned differently. It’s the occult as Colin Wilson figured it.

This is a very different book to a forthcoming novel by by Ian McGuire, The Abstainer. That novel seems fatted for a TV slaughter. Keenan’s book is part of a less compromising literary tradition. But both books have the peelers chasing a bunch of terrorists in a shattered land of sheer contradiction and hypocrisy. Holy Wars on home turf? They never went out of fashion! Both books are essential in 2020 as a far right English government takes power. English, not British, let’s get this right, at the same time as the tension in that binary wants to go up like semtex.

For The Good Times is an autograph written on a plastic bullet for a young admirer by an IRA hitman. This book is the Filthy Truth, smearing its greasy data back onto the Clean Lie of harmony across the 1990s and 2000s. A kind of brilliant dirty protest against provincialism, amnesia and straight stupidity.

– Steve Hanson

Anatomy of a Prize Winner

Olga Tokarczuk – Flights (Fitzcarraldo, 2017)

Poland likes to shout about its successes. When that Polish guy used a narwhal tusk to take down a jihadi on Tower Bridge the Polish news talked about it for two weeks. They are a proud people, over there.

So I was surprised on my recent trip to Poland to learn that a Polish writer winning the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature was not bigger news. Olga Tokarczuk, whose novels include Flights and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (both available in English from Fitzcarraldo), featured very little in their media.

She is against the government, and the government decides what’s news.

Although, in the classic post-communist style, the fact that Tokarczuk was missing from the news meant that everybody talked about her even more.

I decided to take Flights to Poland with me, it being a book about travel, and found, by pure circumstance, that my girlfriend’s mother, with whom we were staying, had just started reading the book too.

Its Polish title, Bieguni, is an archaic variant on the word “runners” and refers to a pre-Christian nomadic belief that one should always keep moving, that way the devil can’t catch up with you.

“Flights” only partly captures this meaning, but it works on another level, connecting the stories of dark age nomads fleeing the devil to murderers fleeing justice, and connecting flights of fancy with the many plane flights that fill the book.

The book is a collage novel. It has a framing device – an unnamed narrator who travels the world, chatting to strangers and noticing funny signage along the way – but the action of the book comes in the form of numerous short stories.

Some of these stories are interweaved. Anatomists play a large part in them, for example. A famous seventeenth century Dutch anatomist is shown passing his knowledge to his younger colleague. The Russian tsar uses the anatomists breakthroughs to have a loyal black retainer stuffed and mounted after he dies. A contemporary anatomist and fetishist tries to recreate the old techniques.

But the connections are slight and often trivial. Many of the stories simply come and go, leaving no traces in the rest of the writing. A Polish sailor who is arrested in Vietnam and learns English by reading Moby Dick is a funny one. The whole prison ends up speaking like salty seadogs. But it’s connection to the grander narrative is merely thematic.

The structure of the novel is in keeping with its contents and subject. Flights is up in the air. It is circling around, looking for a landing spot. Occasionally it touches down, shares a story, only to lurch back up into the narrative sky once again.

It makes good holiday reading. Lots of short sections. Although it can add to your disorientation.

By focusing on the human in transit, Tokarczuk conjures the no-places of travel and, through them, the sad truth that to become international is to lose all identifying characteristics. “Airports have more in common with other airports than with the countries they inhabit,” she notes. The same goes for motorways, travel hotels, and conference centres.

Increasingly, the whole world. I look out of the window at the communist-built tower blocks of Konin and understand that the Polish know what it means to be anonymised.

Perhaps globalisation will make a Konin of us all?

Against the anonymity, Tokarczuk delves for meaning in the specific and the rooted. Her obsession with anatomy comes in here. She recounts the discovery of the Achilles tendon. That something so physically present could lie hidden, just beneath the surface, until the 1640s, presents the body itself as a secret. We are each a closed and specific world.

A sultan, we are told, shirks his duties in the war room to visit his giant harem. Only the bodies of his girls seem real to him. The older the girls get, the less appealing, and so the higher up they are moved in the palace. It is as if, Tokarczuk writes in a beautiful bit of analogy, those at the top would simply disappear into the air.

The last that is seen of the sultan is his baggage train fleeing into the desert. He is carrying away a crowd of children. Contact with their youth will, he believes, will grant him immortality.

So much for the physical.

With its many sections and many stories, Flights can never approach a meaningful conclusion about the local and the global, about specific places and the flight away from them. Instead it demonstrates the impossibility of resolving these issues in a world where we are all now in transit ourselves.

We are limited to moments of poignance, glimpses of beauty, shocks, terror, and sudden love. We are all in a state of flight. Even rootedness itself is now a flight, a fleeing from the transient world, a flight from flights.

The most interesting story for our reading, bilingual as it ended up being, was one of Tokarczuk’s narrator’s own loose thoughts. She was thinking about English, about how everybody speaks it – Germans use it to speak to Hungarians, Polish use it to speak to Italians – and she wonders what it’s like to be English.

Is it strange to hear a room full of people speaking your language to each other, none of them being from your country? What is it like to have no secret language, no language that is “just for us”, that one can speak with a reasonable hope of not being understood by outsiders?

“I don’t know,” I said, when asked this by my girlfriend’s mother. “I can’t say I’ve ever thought of it that way.”

Ultimately, I think this is the great pleasure of reading Olga Tokarczuk’s writing. Not that she thinks new thoughts, but that shows you your old thoughts in a new and different way.

Now if only she would chase somebody down the street with a narwhal tusk, perhaps the ruling powers of her country would start listening to her.

– Joe Darlington 

Egg Bound and Angry

Sam Byers – Perfidious Albion (Faber & Faber) 

This novel has been out since 2018. I held back from reading it as I was writing something I thought might be close to it – I didn’t want to be influenced. As it turned out there was no need to worry, and the novel is surely even more essential as we begin the 2020s than it must have been in 2018.

The book opens at a party full of tossers – I do use the word lightly – who have decamped from London to somewhere fictional in East Anglia, to be tossers.

Here, the present is dead – ‘these are post-present times’. Here, without using the word, is postmodernism. The Latin ‘modo’ means now and so pomo means after-now, after the present. Byers manages to get all of this across without labouring it.

The people at the party mediate everything they do, moving out of London, walking in the countryside, they can’t do anything without turning it into a desperate, empty act of pseudo-psychogeography. They can’t, in fact, do anything that isn’t pseud.

For these mediasphere amphibians the distinction between hate clicks and like clicks has been erased by the simple and sheer desire for clicks. Therefore meaning is dead too – someone says that straight out at one point – and so here also is post-truth. This seems to confirm my hunch that pomo is shading into something much darker politically. Sam Byers seems to feel it too. Time seems to have stalled and we could go down the Mark Fisher cultural gravity hole here, but Perfidious Albion is funny, so let’s not. Later, perhaps.

Back at the tosser party, a fictional bunch of people called Rogue Statement collective have been nicknamed ‘the theory dudes’. They are very much like the real Everyday Analysis collective (EDA) who have quite a presence in Manchester. Rogue Statement collective find fascism everywhere. In iced buns, in socks. They’re a sort of neo-Frankfurt School for the post-Warhol age, and, obviously, they are all also tossers.

An artist works only in crayon and throws mud at walls. ‘To see if it sticks’ is magically written by not writing it at all: Byers pulls off a clear-cut communication with sublety and depth at the same time; he’s a great writer. Much of the weight is carried through light, economically-shaped details, ‘Jess popped to the toilet to tweet’, ‘I think your work may no longer be work.’

Byers sees his own gender and generation as tossers and can write them as such. Personally, I don’t think that’s a huge deal – it’s very obvious – but Byers’ sees women and can write them. Not many can. The friendship between Jess and Deepa is handled cleverly, again through details, they swap food and drinks, for instance. Jess, who poses online as multiple media activists, reads a sycophantic email from her own partner Robert to her alter-ego Byron Stroud. Her shock at seeing a layer of her intimate life that has been hidden from her is very well rendered.

Jess comes across Deepa when she is in a reverie that ‘is not to be shared’ and you know what it contains without being told. Deepa, quietly amused by the room full of tossers, in a corner of the room full of tossers, gives her a depth the others don’t have. You already know, in fact, these people. How shallow is our world when the silent and seeing, the quietly mirthful, are suddenly virtuous? I’ll say it again, Byers draws women well.

A guy turns up to attempt a guerilla reading. As I’ve just spent a year reading au plein air in Manchester I suddenly felt the prick of this book’s needles: this means this book is really good, not bad. Perhaps what pricks us overall is that Byers has got it right and we don’t like that.

I also contributed an article to the EDA website on behaving badly at supermarket checkouts. In my defense, it was humourous. I just looked to see if EDA are still going and surely yes, they are, the last post being ‘The Libidinal Economy and the General Election’. Take some Lyotard, smash it into what’s in front of you, then hang it online to dry. Trouble is, I then ran into the libidinal economy of the internet a few pages on in the novel, in a description of Deepa’s work in a private research institute.

Deepa has escaped Britain’s ‘failing, intellectually incapacitated universities.’ This book isn’t ‘neo-modern’ or ‘new sincerity’ – and not only because those literary-theoretical farts have barely any power in them – but because the return to meaning, belief and ‘real politics’ – the Corbynista dream – has not happened here and looks as though it never will. Prescient. Jess’s partner, Robert Townsend, with a rosy view of the working classes, defends a housing estate from predatory developers. But what he really defends and promotes is the image of himself caring about the estate, the working classes and their plight.

Gentrifiers binge on anti-gentrification articles, the sick tautologies of our time are mercilessly paraded before our hypocritical psyches. When I finally got around to reading Houellebecq properly, I realised that his popping of the European neoliberal bubble, with its roots in ‘the counterculture’ was accurate. But Houellebecq is also a tosser and a nasty one. I don’t think Byers is a tosser at all, but he skewers the shallow meniscus of the English neoliberal epoch very accurately too.

The tossers at the party the book opens with are all wanting, in a double sense, they are all full of nothing but lack, and they all desire something out of their reach. The trouble is, the reality that all of these people desperately want is already there. But you wouldn’t like that reality if you found it. If you’re deeply, abjectly poor with no way out, this whole world of authors writing about tossers talking to other tossers about bullshit means zero. That’s the world of the ‘real’ and ‘authentic’. You can’t go there on holiday, the only way you can go there at all is by making it so that you can never climb out again.

Byers tries to go there. In a decaying council estate flat a character called Alfred Darkin entrenches himself. There’s a parallel with Dickens, and Amis perhaps, just in the naming of this character. There’s a just-so ness to the descriptions here that some might object to. A lack of colour, a simplicity in the explanation of Darkin in his flat, reading the Faragesque Hugo Bennington in the Record newspaper. There’s the moment Robert Townsend enters Darkin’s flat to try to help him, and the smell that hits – fag smoke and urine – will raise leftwing sanctimony like Engels’ descriptions of Manchester as The City of Stink. Alfred Darkin automatically regurgitates the last rightwing newspaper article he has read and denies any counter-argument. Again, many will object.

Darkin’s world is black and white, it has little nuance, his wife was alive (white/light) and then gone (black/dark). We then step into Robert and Jess’s ‘educated middle class’ world and the tomato and chilli sauce is in vivid colour, their conversations are rainbows. But the infinite shades of nuance in early 21st c. living are becoming a hell here. Jess, once trolled and threatened with rape and violence, begins to secretly troll her own partner, Robert.

And so ultimately I don’t object, and I’m from a working class background. Darkin’s life may be the monochrome past and Jess and Robert’s the sleek psychedelic future, but their existence in an infinitely fluid, contextless drift is just a different hell to Darkin’s immobile, solid, heavy hades.

Trina, a character working in a department of the tech company Green, has found that becoming ‘permanent’, a secure employee, does not mean that at all. This is all of our hell. Even Hugo Bennington is flanked by a tosser and an arsehole. One is Teddy Handler, a lifehack guru the Green coders follow. Teddy Hunter makes spaceships out of Lego to help him brainstorm and he is a very convincing representative for our times. The more time you spent with Teddy the more ‘the border between the profound and the insufferably moronic began to feel dangerously porous.’

They all join up, the tech gurus love Teddy Handler’s ‘Teducationals’ and Hugo Bennington is compromised by his shares in the property firm who are trying to muscle council tenants out. Bennington then writes ‘for’ these oppressed left-behind working classes. The moment the fascists are out on the streets is genuinely chilling. Beyond Black Mirror.

This book is in a tradition and it is an important contribution to that lineage. One can move back in time from Amis to Dickens and then to Fielden and Smollett. Byers’ clear-cut communication can become cartoon, it is true. The private housing company, trying to displace tenants from the estate – including Alfred Darkin – is called Downton. But Byers’ strength here is going for the most loaded signifier. He has written a very sharp eighteenth century satire wearing the mask of the digital age. I will go so far as to claim that Byers diagnoses most humans at this point in history when he describes two tech guys as ‘weirdly eggbound and clenched with an anger they couldn’t name.’

Darkin’s interior monologue may be cut from cardboard, but the dreary monologues of false consciousness – and I don’t use that term lightly – are one dimensional. Deepa though, Deepa is just a little bit deeper. Byers’ whole picture is perhaps best judged when nearly everyone in it – of whatever social class – has been jig-sawn out of plywood, gaudily painted and propped up in a dead, wild west town. The queasy horror that the consumers of the Downton television fantasy are its victims, both historically and in terms of its immediate, energy-sapping illusion, comes to us just through this choosing of names. Names that initially appear rashly chosen. It’s a very unbeat use of ‘first thought best thought’, but it works. Somehow, just through this detail, the whole fucked-up plateau we live on, with its euromillions jackpot and One Show, with its pretentious, preening narcissists with MAs, is illuminated in a glamourless lightning flash. A sad little platform only precariously aloof from the merciless sea. How very real. How very now.

But actually, 2018, the year the book was published, at the pelting pace of politics today, is ages ago. Boris wasn’t in Number Ten when this book came out, but it seems to know he will be. If there is a parallel for Teddy Handler, it is surely Dominic Cummings.

I can’t give you an overview of how all of what I have described pans out, that would be way too big a spoiler. But this is an essential novel of historical record and future orientation.  

– Steve Hanson

Sunrise in the Selfish City

Rania Mamoun – Thirteen Months of Sunrise (Comma Press, 2019)

Nestled between Ethiopia and Egypt, Sudan doesn’t often make the international news. Even the best-informed reader would be forgiven for associating the country only with the ongoing civil war taking place among the warring tribes of its south.

Its capital, however, Khartoum, is divided less by its ethnic tensions than by class. Recently described by The Guardian as “the most selfish city in the world”, Khartoum is run by and for a small Arab elite. The multi-ethnic city they rule over is, by contrast, in a state of perpetual anarchy.

It is into these sweltering streets that Rania Mamoun plunges us in her short story collection Thirteen Months of Sunrise.

Mamoun’s ten stories are short but pack a mighty punch. Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, the book’s prose is concise. We are hit by rapid bursts of images, each of which evokes a clear spirit of place. Smells, reveries and dreams all sit alongside poverty, scrap iron and extremes of human deprivation.

Each story takes us to another corner of Khartoum. In my personal favourite, “Doors”, we are witness to the increasing frustration of an unemployed man whose clean shirt is slowly torn apart, catching on everything it can on his way to a job interview.

His frustrations are recognisable to anyone. We’ve all spilled coffee on our best shirt. That the man lives in a pre-fab shack without running water is secondary to his human frustration. Mamoun’s focus on universal experiences like this are what make her stories so readable, and help us to place ourselves in the shoes of the Sudanese people she depicts.

The shortness of the stories gives them the feel of prose poems. They are no longer than they need to be. The collection itself comes in at under 70 pages. Yet, despite their brevity, these stories carry a lot of weight.

The collection is structured in a loose arc. We open with a friendship between two office workers. One is Eritrean, although the speaker mistakes him for Ethiopian: the Sudanese, we are told, refer to citizens of both countries under the collective label “Assyrian”.

Our Sudanese protagonist reveals themselves to be a lover of all things Assyrian. He wears Assyrian clothes and frequents Assyrian cafes. His Eritrean colleague appreciates this and, after a trip to an Assyrian record shop, hints at the story of his emigration.

That Eritreans still flee to Khartoum, as Ethiopians did a generation ago during their droughts, shows us the relative prosperity and peace of the Sudanese capital city.

By the final story, however, we are exploring the darkest and dirtiest of the city’s slums. In “Stray Steps” the starving speaker travels the poverty-striken streets, trading sexual favours for food and other scraps.

She is relieved only by a friendly dog, in a moment of magical realism that, by pushing the boundaries of believability, ends the collection on an ambiguous note.

Mamoun’s collection is well worth checking out. Anyone interested in the contemporary short story will find in here a series of highly original narratives, each realised with masterful technique. For those interested in the Sudanese setting there is also much here to praise. Less of a tourist guide than a guided tour down the backstreets; you leave feeling you know something of the real Khartoum.

The sun is rising on this exciting writer whose works are finally making it into the English language. It shows no sign of setting any time soon.

– Joe Darlington

Mountains of Men

Michael Nath – British Story: A Romance (Route, 2014)

When I came across Michael Nath’s novel, British Story, at a book fair last month, I was hesitant to buy. It seemed like an interesting story, published by the small press Route, who I trust. My worry was more that, since 2016, anything with “British” or “English” or “England” in the title means Brexit.

And it doesn’t just mean Brexit. It means a Guardian reader’s Brexit. Veering wildly from sneering at the proles to trembling at jackboots within the space of moments. Brexit hasn’t even happened yet and it’s already ruined literature.

Which is why I was so pleased to discover in Nath’s novel an antidote to all of the post-Brexit ugliness. Where other novelists promised to find the “real Britain”, and “capture the spirit of a troubled nation”, only to end up embarrassing themselves, Nath has managed to say something meaningful.

His secret? He wrote the book in 2014.

Yes, I came to British Story a little late. But I feel like, perhaps, it was I who read the story at the correct time, and Nath who made the mistake of writing it too early.

The story follows Kennedy, an English Lit lecturer who, thankfully, is rather cynical about the over-intellectualised puff that is the bane of his subject area. Kennedy is old school. He understands that literature, or perhaps good literature, is all about character.

“But what is character?” his postmodernised colleagues ask. For them, it is a construct. For the blokes he meets down the pub it’s just something made up – made up stories. But characters are real, Kennedy knows. Not real as in physical. Not objects as such. But they exist and they exert power in the world.

He is studying Falstaff, the character of characters. Shakespeare’s trickster spirit who can charm the King, and who can make even gluttony and cowardice somehow heroic.

It is in the aftermath of an unsuccessful conference when Kennedy finally encounters a Falstaff of his own. The true character who emerges from the novel, overpowering Kennedy like Gatsby does Nick. He’s a Welshman: Arthur Mountain.

Once Arthur enters, the novel is impossible to put down. He is a compelling, dangerous character. A man of big passions and ancient beliefs. He drags Kennedy into a real world of character: underworld villains, football firms, a Mancunian dreamer called Ian Brown; it is a tour of the country’s big mythic heroes.

This is the beauty of Nath’s writing. He has brought to life a range of Brits who all bark and bite with equal ferocity, but love and dream as well. He is not a realist, but his characters linger on the border of reality. They are as real as feelings – the feelings of pride, shame, and frustration that led us to Brexit. Nath truly speaks to the heart of Britain in this book.

And so Arthur is revealed, in a battle with sword-drawing Michael Stone, to have been an Arthurian legend all along. But Arthur is Britain. He’s a hero so English that he was here before the English, and so is actually Welsh. If anything, his people were the enemies of the English. And you can’t get more English than that.

British Story is a novel for our time. Michael Nath knows how to write real literature, stuff with heart and character. He isn’t afraid to look life in the eye, despite all of its jagged edges and contradictions, and he knows how to take this and turn it into a story. A British story at that.

– Joe Darlington

Screaming bloody murder

Ewan Fernie and Simon Palfrey – Macbeth, Macbeth (Beyond Criticism, 2016)

This is the shit that things grow out of. This is the shit that things were already growing out of before the ink was dry in messrs. Fernie and Palfrey’s notebooks.

No mysticism, it’s because they are steeped. Up to their waists in the loam, the historical and psychological doo-doo.

Their stated ambition is to reach inside Macbeth’s torture chamber, a place all the bloodier in Shakespeare because of the curtains drawn around it. A place all the bloodier because of the lack of blood.

In Fernie and Palfrey’s version there is comedy, sheer amoral brutality, rape.

In each and every era civilisation appears to be finally completed before we are disabused of the illusion. Good riddance, I say.

I was in top set for English at school and our hippy teacher – an excellent teacher, to be fair – showed us Threads, which traumatised me for life. She also showed us Polanski’s Macbeth. Crackling VHS images captured on YouTube have come with an evil hiss ever since.

A scene was going on in Macbeth as the white static snow strafed the screen, and there was some screaming down the corridor. The hippy teacher flatly explained ‘of course, all the women would be raped when a siege broke.’

Even at this distance I can still access the shock I felt in my body as it sunk in. Like ice in the veins and then anti-freeze. My face burning red. This teacher opened my eyes to the brutality of humans. Fernie and Palfrey have done this all over again.

Then we all had to shuffle out of the classroom, by girls, girls in skirts, girls who suddenly – after seeming so scarily, shapeshiftingly advanced in comparison to us puny boys – looked vulnerable.

Fernie and Palfrey’s writing is incredible. They can conjure something greener than the greenest green without the colour ever appearing. I still cannot remember or find again the sentence they connived to do this but the image remains.

But what Fernie and Palfrey have really done here – the very big thing they have done – is to explore the psychology of humans all over again. They have also re-created human history, in which the glorious lineages of the present are lies that hide absurd accidents, smashed apart continuums – here the arrival of industrial bread factories – and fake heritage, all underpinned by murder, rape and more rape.

The filth and the lies are then scraped together into a dark, sweet confection and served to a glad-hearted population. How very now.

Everyone should read this book, academics, adults, children. It is not an academic experiment, the tone they have found makes it far wider in appeal.

Fernie and Palfrey’s book, emerging in 2016 and written before the current mess showed its full shape, has stood its own test of time already by re-lighting 2019, a place almost impossible to see from, say, 2014.

In this it stands up to their ultimate subject, to Shakespeare himself, and there isn’t a higher compliment than that.

– Steve Hanson

To the Lighthouse

Vincent de Swarte – Pharricide (Confingo Publishing, 2019)

It’s not often that you read a whole novel in a day. It’s even rarer to find a novel that encourages you to do so. Vicente de Swarte’s Pharricide, newly translated into English by Nicholas Royle, is just such a novel; and the effect is tremendous.

You almost feel bad for the efforts of both writer and translator, that their work can be consumed in a single, nerve-tingling afternoon. But, in the reader’s defense, Pharricide is a roller coaster ride that is perfectly suited to rapid reading.

It is a descent into madness with action that dips and rises rapidly. It has many facets, all hanging together in an apparently simply arrangement which, when viewed closely, reveals a more complex structure filled with allusion, hints and suggestions.

It follows the progress of one Geoffrey Lefayen, lighthouse keeper and “executioner of Cordouan”, whose winter spent alone in the Cordouan lighthouse drives him into a state of murderous rage.

No reasons are given for his rage, other than his solitude and the hint of a traumatic childhood, although I suspect these may have been thrown in merely to supply the demanded motive. His violence is, instead, compulsive, ritualistic, and driven by pure animus.

De Swarte’s terrifying protagonist can be charmingly quirky at times. A taxidermist in love with his work; he amasses a small animal following including a friendly conga eel, a “red, red” crayfish “painted as if cooked”, a sick seagull and, later on, even bigger game.

Lefayen’s derangements culminate in a fantastical wedding ceremony. There are stuffed sea creatures presiding and the bride is a murderer on the run.

Lefayen’s lighthouse seems to attract criminals in fact. Like Lefayen himself, it casts out a light into the shadows, drawing in a variety of victims both deserving and undeserving. Early in the novel, Lefayen feels himself transforming into the lighthouse. He, as Lucifer, the lightbringer, attracts his victims as an anglerfish does its prey.

As a lot of Pharricide’s readerly enjoyment derives from the twists in its tale, the surprises and the shocks, I feel that to truly recommend the book I must leave my description of the text minimal. It isn’t often that a novel surprises me nowadays, and this one truly did. It would be unfair of me to ruin such surprises for others.

But rest assured that Pharricide is pacey, direct, and translated with a concision that rewards the quick reader, as the original too is said to have done. First published in 1998, the novel has taken a while to arrive upon our shores but it does now in a translation that is destined to win over plenty of new readers.

It is an excellent introduction to its small press, Confingo, and to an author still almost unknown in the Anglophone world.

Short, snappy, fun and frightening. Vincent de Swarte’s Pharricide is a must-read for the summer. A perfect book for a lazy afternoon, a long-haul flight, or for passing the time while trapped alone inside a desolate lighthouse.

– Joe Darlington

Anemone and Skins

Rita Indiana – Tentacle (Achy Obejas, translator, & Other Stories, 2019)

A post-apocalyptic Caribbean island. A sacred anemone is stolen from the dictator’s personal obeah and traded for Rainbow Brite; a drug that can change a man to a woman, or a woman to a man.

As far as premises go, Tentacle had me hooked from the start. Then, just like its namesake, it sucked me in and entangled me. It was a book that I couldn’t put down and, more than that, the book wouldn’t put me down either.

Rita Indiana has an amazing ability to switch up tone and direction without it breaking the narrative flow or writing style. We move between the minds of a trans sex worker, a lazy artist and an eighteenth-century skin trader with seamless fluidity. The translator, Achy Obejas, must take some credit for this too. The book is a masterpiece in streetfighting style.

As far as narratives go, Tentacle is refreshingly plot-driven. Despite being primarily literary in her approach to writing, Indiana has smuggled in the dark arts of structure and pacing with her sci-fi genre borrowings. We move from section to section just at the right moment; entering during the action and leaving just before a resolution is offered. Serious momentum is developed as a result.

So, what is the story? Well, the primary narrative concerns the aforementioned transman Acilde who is introduced to Esther, the President’s obeah, by a john. This client is a Cuban doctor who can get access to the transitioning drug Rainbow Brite and so, after some underworld scheming, they concoct a plan to steal the obeah’s rare, sacred, and, most importantly, highly valuable anemone.

The sacredness and rarity of the anemone is due to an environmental catastrophe that, despite being essential to the book’s setting, is nevertheless dealt with lightly. The Caribbean Sea (and perhaps all seas, we are told) have been turned black. A bioweapon was unleashed that destroyed all marine life and the world lingers on in the aftermath.

The smartest part of Tentacle, for me, is its depiction of a “post-apocalyptic” life not too dissimilar from our own. Everything continues, only slightly worse, and refugees from the devastated zones (in this case Haiti) are efficiently disposed of, posing only a minor inconvenience.

There is something more chilling, more real, in this blasé attitude to disaster than anything offered by The Road, for example (another book with black seas).

The disaster explains the anemone’s rarity. Yet to understand its sacredness, Indiana introduces us to a historical narrative. Roque, the cook and captain of a small band of skinners, lands on the island with his men, Argenis and Engombe, accompanying him. They slaughter and skin cattle beside a sacred cave.

In the cave are said to be the “big headed” men and women of the ancient times. To access it, one must dive through a narrow underwater passageway lined with anemones. To do so changes a man.

It is here that we are introduced to the final portrait of our narrative triptych; the artist, Argenis. Also present at the skinning, Argenis has a loose relationship with time, and it is his aimless meandering through the past and the future, call-centres and the fine art world, that provide the connections between Indiana’s overlapping narrative arcs.

Argenis’ journey through art holds the key to understanding Tentacle’s concealed thematic depths. Trained as a promising renaissance painter by a group of Catholic priests, he arrives at art school to discover abstraction, modernism, and postmodernism all at once. This leads to a breakdown at first, a total lack of confidence, before eventually offering a rebirth.

Argenis’ neoclassicism is much in demand from wealthy commissioners, and praised by the fashionable for its kitsch. Argenis is a success, but the terms of his success alienate him from his paintings, his work, and ultimately his own life; preferring weed and porn to his wife and family.

Tentacle is, to my mind, a book that is as much about art as it is about disaster. Indiana might have taken all the best bits from sci-fi to construct her narrative, but its speculative aspects serve a symbolic rather than a predictive function.

Like Argenis’ ironic detachment from his own classical talent, the sacred magic of the anemones is made hollow by the sea’s death, and Acilde’s life too is made hollow by getting what he wants: having achieved a male body, he has no more to pursue. The apocalypse of Tentacle is twenty-first century meaninglessness, and each character meets it, is crushed by it, and becomes post-apocalyptic as a result.

Tentacle is a novel of great depth that also happens to be a great read. These don’t come along very often and I highly recommend checking it out. This is the novel that Olivia Laing’s Crudo was trying to be. If it isn’t granted the same kudos as that unfortunate book then we can be sure that our literary class is corrupt, and we should push them all together, en masse, into the black sea.

– Joe Darlington 

Our Laureate of the Concept Collider

Michael Conley – Flare and Falter (Splice)

This author is so far from the mass of average fiction writers, wrapped up in a fantasy idea of their own life, wanting to ‘express themselves’, or even worse, doing that but not even knowing there’s another way to work.

Conley takes two ideas to his giant particle collider brain – it runs the full length of the Mancunian Way if it had been completed – then he lets them go, BANG round the tubes at a million miles an hour. They smash into a trillion infinitely coloured fragments. A snapshot is taken from every possible angle. Conley writes up the report, lab coat on, biros in top pocket – important that – and then he condenses it into a short story. He repeats the process until he has a short story collection which also works as a novel.

Conley knows that to make good art you have to stand further back, not get closer. That you have to squint, not peer in. That you have to look out, not like, hey, inside yourself man.

He also knows that ultimately this will provide a better snapshot of Michael Conley – as well as a cracking work of fiction – than a decade of soul-searching could ever give. He’s also a bloody great poet.

Now, spoilers are very possible with this one – and will ruin your fun – but all I need to tell you is that one short story involves the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl returned to the next life as a South Manchester pub landlord.

Buy and read immediately.

– Steve Hanson

The crackle of damaged wiring

Richard Barrett and Steve Hanson – The Acts (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018)

It was a Sunday and there was damage to the cables in Cornbrook. No-one knew what the damage was. All they could say was that there were replacement services available, although they didn’t know from where. Cornbrook is the central node connecting every tramline across East, North, and South Manchester. It was going to be a long day.

I tell you this to situate my review. When I tell you that The Acts, an experimental collaboration between Richard Barrett and Steve Hanson, is about stuckness, about the oppressiveness of bad space, about social shitness, then you know that’s because I felt it.

This is not a book about being stuck on public transport for five hours, although it might be its philosophical equivalent.

I say that not to put readers off. What Barrett and Hanson have accomplished is the kind of raw writing that is honest in the sense of honest sweat and honest toil. It is not a clean honesty. Not an honesty that shocks you with its confessions. It is simply two men talking about their daily grinds, heartaches and the kinds of suffering that don’t sell.

The narrative, if there is one, is the exchange of messages between two writers. Both are literary, both academic, and yet their writing is clearly as much a symptom of their lives as it is a record of society’s symptoms. There is no separation between personal confession, myth making and theorising. Instead we hear of friends, failed romances and visions like Manchester Area Psychogeographic levitating the Corn Exchange; all three overlapping.

As you read you get the sense of lives lived in constant dialogue with theory. Two voices attempting to understand themselves through the words of hundreds of other voices.

One voice, the self-styled Mendelssohn, plans to analyse every year of his life thus far, moving backwards. Starting at the age of 42 and planning to spend a year looking at each year from 2018 back, he soon realises completion of the task might take him into retirement. The weight of personal and theoretical pasts builds up.

The dialogue is then punctured by updates from a news website. The free-floating prose is suddenly nailed down to a specific time: Trump announces North Korea talks, Labour backs new EU customs union. These remind us that history is always moving on in the background as our writers struggle on with deadlines and the end of their 12 month contracts.

The writing is always clear, even when its grammar fragments and its images grow strange. It is writing like scar tissue, healing over the cuts and cracks of daily life, bits of newsprint sticking into it like gravel in a scab.

As the blurb says, The Acts is an attempt to “tell the self” without the glory of self-promotion. It is a fascinating project for a new press like Dostoyevsky Wannabe to take on. I feel like its combination of raw sentiment and closely observed mundanity might offer a new approach to what we take to be confessional writing.

I have never sold my body for drugs. I have never been implicated in a child’s death. I have been stuck on public transport for five hours, and I am ready for a book that speaks about my pain. This just might be it.

– Joe Darlington