Few would disagree that Europe is currently at a crossroads: torn between the rivalries of the past and hopeful co-operation for the future; between federalism and nationalism; between open borders and patrolled fences. The European Union of the early twenty-first century has struggled to maintain unity as the continent lurches from crisis to crisis, from Greek debt to Syrian refugees to the disputed Ukrainian border. Youth unemployment and austerity fuel rival movements: the far-right appeals to the disaffected with promises of a return to nationalist glory, whilst a new socialism hopes to reclaim and invigorate a "lost generation." Few, in truth, know what Europe will look like in a few decades' time. At its edge balances England, a nation at its own crossroads, and one which looms large with its coming referendum on continued membership of the EU: is the country truly a part of this delicate Europe, or is it best off alone?
It is this perilous subject which is broached by English author Dave Hutchinson's most recent novel, Europe at Midnight, the sequel to his much-lauded Europe in Autumn. At a time of sorely needed European introspection, Hutchinson presents us in these novels with a worst-case scenario: one in which, by the middle of the century, the continent has Balkanised. Not only is the open-border dream of the Schengen Zone long dead, but new microstates are springing up from the husks of former nations, each with their own border controls, identities, and even intelligence services—this latter the field in which the novel's two main protagonists operate. Being both European and English myself, all this raises some fascinating and vital questions: what does such a fractured and divided Europe look like? And how does England relate to a continent which has failed the challenges of the new century?
Though the premise of the novel is of vital importance to a people lacking a common cultural and political vision—there is, alas, no European Dream as yet—it is telling that Europe at Midnight begins in a different world entirely. Taking place in an isolated location known as "The Campus," the novel follows Rupert, a reluctant intelligence co-ordinator for a regime which has only recently overthrown its fascistic predecessor and is trying to establish "democracy" whilst making sense of the chaos and madness of the post-revolutionary period. Though this exact situation is familiar to the peoples of almost every European country, the novel's opening remains resolutely dark and unknowable, leaving the reader to scrabble around for clues, and finding only grotesque hints at the world which existed before them.
In fact, the novel's opening demands the reader uncover the secrets of this strange land alongside Rupert, wading through the moral murkiness to the sites of mass graves, laboratories containing grotesque medical experiments, and the insurmountably complex archives of the Old Board. Each aspect of this world is masterfully revealed by the author, and in truth this section is far too short: the Campus is mercilessly destroyed at the end of the novel's first act, throwing Rupert into mid-21st-century Europe. In his own words he describes the jarring contrast: "I had come from a world where everyone was white, no one had to pay for anything, and there were no gods" (p. 123).
It transpires that The Campus exists on a parallel plane of existence, having been created by occultist aristocrats some centuries ago. The Campus is (was) not the only part of this strange pocket universe, the rest of which is referred to as The Community and covers an area spanning the Atlantic to the Urals; Scandinavia to the Mediterranean.
Yet for now The Community remains a mystery, and it is our multicultural capitalist Europe which sets the scene for the main portion of the novel. In London we are introduced to the novel's second protagonist: Jim, also an intelligence worker, this time for the English government (that's "English," not "British"—Scotland and Wales have become independent nations). Whilst some direct exposition is provided about this rapidly unravelling world—plague, economic crises, governmental collapses—at other times the state of things is only hinted at, leaving the reader to infer conditions through throwaway statements and objects, something which always thrills me with speculative fiction. A single flippant mention of a £10 coin tells us more about the state of the economy than an entire paragraph of clumsy description.
Yet it is in Europe that we find the novel's first problem: though it provides some wonderful speculative elements, these projections are limited in scope, and for the most part things have remained as they are now. This wouldn't be an issue by itself, so long as the author made clear the reasons for such stagnation. Though a potential explanation is implied (Europe has undergone the "Xian Flu," which devastated the continent), it doesn't adequately explain why so little has changed in several decades. Some of these limitations are minor details, but it's the minor details which set the scene. It is never explained why, for example, so many people seem to be reading paper newspapers, especially when the novel makes it clear that tablets are abundant. At times this proves immersion-breaking: like the unnecessary detailing of Burger King's menu, which inexplicably still serves exactly the same items it does today. In fact, the protagonist speaks so highly of the franchise that it almost reads as product placement: "I found a Burger King and had a Chicken Royale with cheese, which was still one of the most exquisite things I had ever tasted . . . " (p.157).
Then there are the social issues. Ignoring the fact that both protagonists are white, cis, and heterosexual, we're still left with the fact that so is every single other character. Though that's not so unusual in fiction, and even speculative fiction, it's a lazy assumption on a continent where minority groups are growing in number, and where orientations and identities are becoming ever more blurred. The narrative blunders through a series of pointlessly heterosexist statements. When native Londoner Jim visits his older, female coworker's home he notes that she doesn't have a husband. This proves jarring, as it's not an assumption made by young people now, let alone someone from the capital, decades into the future. Sexist tropes prevail, with girlfriends nagging boyfriends to earn more money, and men making mother-in-law-esque jokes about their wives. At times these assumptions unmask the illusion of the novel as truly speculative fiction—leaving a slightly stale sense of cultural stasis. Had these statements come from Rupert, they might have provided an interesting contrast between Europe and The Campus—but it's somewhat baffling when it comes from ageing Millennials and the generation succeeding them.
Unfortunately, I can't let the issue of gender rest there. Throughout the novel I was left with a feeling of unease about the novel's representation of women. Things begin well enough, with at least three strong female characters being featured on the Campus, but—and I must warn you this is a slight spoiler, but it's too unnerving and downright odd not to mention—why does almost every female character get murdered? The ratio of female to male deaths is inexplicably unbalanced, and on average women seem to have a life expectancy of about six chapters. Many women are introduced, but only a couple survive to the epilogue. Coupled with the vaguely sexist jokes and generalisations, it proves extremely off-putting. Both male protagonists easily fulfil the masculine archetype, and when the demands of Jim's intelligence work cause his wife to leave with his stepson, he barely even notices. It is difficult to avoid the message that women are disposable.
With its strange lack of speculative and social insight, it is this central, primarily Europe-based section which is where the novel is at its weakest. Plot events are picked up and dropped as though handled by a bored infant, and the continual absence of scene setting and effective characterisation makes the novel feel disjointed at its centre. The plot leaps backwards and forwards in time, a device which can be used to great effect, but which here often proves disorienting and confusing. The narrative skips between England and Germany, without ever providing a strong feel for either.
Leaving these significant criticisms to one side for a moment, the final portion of the novel takes place within the mysterious Community. Alongside The Campus of the first act, it is this part of the plot which truly shines, and which gives the greatest insight into both Europe's dilemmas and England's relation to them. The Community was created from England, is full of "English" people, and remains a thoroughly English project: the population of this parallel universe are a parody of the English themselves. Yet The Community's geography suggests an "English" domination of an entire continent: one which just happens to coexist in the same physical space as Europe. This world can be viewed as a conservative English ideal: a tamed and "civilised" Europe, one flattened rather than fractured, a Europe without conflicts, divides, or political experiments. Even the landscape is tamed, with the wilderness forming endless gardens, dotted with peaceful village greens. From this stance Hutchinson presents us with a regressive vision dreamed of for centuries: a Europe run by England. In fact, this very idea is lampshaded earlier in the novel:
I still wasn't sure whether England was in Europe or not; I had the impression that the English would have quite liked to be in Europe so long as they were running it, but weren't particularly bothered otherwise. (p. 189)
Yet this "English Europe" of The Community is no utopia: though the population is ignorant of war, revolution, and (until very recently) state genocide, they are instead burdened with a stale culture and rigid social hierarchies. With no social laboratory, this alternate Europe functions instead as a museum, with neither innovation nor diversity.
Hutchinson effectively challenges England's quiet jingoism, and in viewing The Community we see a version of the English who are themselves cut off from Europe; the English without European influences. The result reveals a peculiar type of horror: a largely placid and placated people, uninspired and uninteresting, run by a dull yet extremely malevolent State. Without other European ideological influences there is no real democracy, little class awareness, and absolutely no hope for any kind of change. It is The Community which forms the true villain of the novel: the author confronts us with a vision of a truly English state, isolated and xenophobic, and the result is more horrifying than any dystopia. In short, the peoples of Europe need one another; for people and discourse to flow across illusory borders—a point strongly made by events at the novel's conclusion. European nations do not exist in isolation, and only co-operation will save us from ourselves.
Reading Europe at Midnight proved a considerably mixed experience. Certainly the first and final acts prove most compelling, and this is surely no accident: Hutchinson is at his strongest when dealing with the vivid alternate realities of The Campus and The Community, and his satire of "Englishness" and national identity(ies) is absolutely spot-on. Correspondingly, the novel is at its weakest when dealing with the speculative aspects of our own world, and where Hutchinson's imagination and insight dissipate. Women exist as little more than disposable plot elements, and the stasis in terms of setting and social milieus harms the speculative immersion.
Combining considerable cultural insight with sexist tropes, vividly constructed alternate worlds with an unimaginatively bland future, and a plot which begins and ends on a high whilst getting somewhat lost in the middle, Europe at Midnight is at once a novel both flawed and fascinating. In truth I'm still uncertain as to how I truly feel about Hutchinson's work—if the reader can overcome its shortcomings, it provides a pertinent perspective on Europe's problems, and England's relation to them. Both Europe and England need more introspective fiction, and the questions raised by Europe at Midnight are of vital importance to a continent at a crossroads—which makes it all the more a shame that the novel ultimately fails to live up to its promise.
Redfern gained a queer literature Ph.D. from the University of Wales in 2010. Since then his writing has appeared in several newspapers, magazines, and anthologies, with his novel The Giddy Death of the Gays & the Strange Demise of Straights being published by Lethe Press this June. Stalk him at redjon.com.