There is a strong seam of disgust running through contemporary British fiction. Predominately masculine in nature, it is a disgust directed primarily at the vapidity of the world that surrounds it. At the same time a fair portion is directed inwards: we are all fiddling whilst Rome burns. For some writers this reaction to the world is so strong it can only be fully articulated by looking at a near future that is even worse. Recent examples of this sort of work include The Red Men by Matthew de Abaitua, Martin Martin's on the Other Side by Mark Wernham, The Book of Dave by Will Self, and Will Ashon's debut novel, Clear Water. To add to this list we now have Everything is Sinister and The Heritage.
David Llewellyn's novel is the more obvious of the pair. In fact, it couldn't be more obvious. The crux of the plot is that Colin Curtis, the winner of an imitation Big Brother reality show called Lockdown, turns out to be a convicted paedophile. Big Brother and paedophile hysteria: you would be hard pressed to find five better words to sum up this literature of modern disgust. Our narrator is Ed Raynes, a gossip journalist who works for a tabloid newspaper owned by the same media conglomerate that makes Lockdown and who, having been curdled by keeping Curtis's secret, is enmeshed in a plot to assassinate him. It is Raynes who provides the mantra of this sort of book:
This is wrong. This is wrong. This is wrong. This is wrong. (p. 150)
What exactly is wrong though? Well, this is the problem with the novel. Caught in a downward spiral, Raynes catalogues the horror of the modern world for us:
Hell is reading a newspaper story about how a woman who has been in a coma for two years is pregnant and how the police are DNA testing hospital staff and relatives. Hell is seeing bunches of flowers tied to a lamp post. Hell is the foil and the needles left behind in a telephone box. (p. 121)
Reading this I was put in mind of the scene from Regeneration by Pat Barker in which the psychiatrist Rivers gets to the root of the shell-shocked soldier Billy's trauma. Confronted by the image that has triggered his breakdown, Billy's disgusted response is: is that all? There is no denying these aren't very nice things—although I'm not sure what self-respecting junkie would shoot up in a phone box—but they are unremarkable and, relatively, timeless. Call me jaded, but they don't give any suggestion of modern humanity's descent into the abyss. They are also at odds with Llewellyn's focus for the novel, which is primarily cultural, only secondarily societal, and not at all political. The book comes on heavy but is weeping and rending its garments in the face of pop culture fluff.
I approached this book with something approaching dread because this is the second novel Llewellyn has published this year, and the other is a Torchwood spin-off. Luckily Llewellyn seems to have won that commission through a bit of demographic profiling—he is Welsh and gay—rather than because he was one of the world's worst writers, as I had assumed. In fact, not withstanding a bit of overreaching such as the passage above, he is a decent writer. That doesn't stop Everything is Sinister from being a pretty inconsequential novel though. He is good on living in London, on the media, on pub talk, and on cruising for anonymous sex. In other words he is good with all the aspects he is likely to be familiar with. Things become unbalanced when we discover the truth about the first-person narrative we are reading, a drug that allows you to remember the future is introduced, and Llewellyn starts throwing in cheesy literary gags: "'Mr Curtis...' he says, 'he dead?'" (p. 156)
In my review of The Red Men I wrote, "the stranger [it] gets the less interesting it becomes." The same is true here, and I am starting to suspect it is true of all such near-future satires of disgust that the very act of creating their satirical world blunts or impedes what the author intends. Will Ashon is a better writer than Llewellyn but he suffers from a similar problem.
At first glance Ashon's impressive debut, Clear Water, appeared to be a satire of a similar stripe to Everything is Sinister. Partially set in a monstrously large shopping mall, it does satirise corporate culture, consumer consumption, and commodity fetishisation but after the first few pages it soon becomes clear that it is something much richer and weirder. The Heritage, his second novel, starts on a more straightforwardly satirical (and political) note:
A central tenant of Rehabunishment was the enrolment of Customers (as we were known) into a workplace situation in which essential New Economy skills could be acquired. Allason and I were both signed up to the Anti-Social Behaviour Programme and worked in the Unit's onsite call centre. (p. 11)
Our narrator is fourteen-year-old Tilly, a nice middle-class schoolgirl imprisoned in a young offenders institute for accidentally releasing a computer virus created by her brother. Inside she meets Allason AKA Sadie AKA Lady Sady—"Well, Lady Allason don't rhyme, innit? An Sadie's well sexy. Yagetme?" (p. 17)—a scornful rudegirl who becomes her best friend. At the end of their sentence they are released into the care of Lynda in a bedsit in Coalville, an imitation heritage town that recreates the mining experience of the Midlands in Kent. A masterclass of entrepreneurial spirit, Lynda is their landlady, social worker, probation officer, fence, and drug dealer.
"Tilly Tilly Tilly. If you weren't carrying the criminal gene, I would be tempted to adopt you. Or sell you to a pimp." A wistful pause before rallying. "Anyway, what a mar-vellous idea." (p. 64)
Lynda em-pha-sises her words like that all the time, which is the only aspect of Ashon's prose that can become wearying. In contrast, the London patois that is the default voice of his younger characters, especially Sadie, is carried off flawlessly. This minor issue illustrates the tension between the broad satire and the acute realism that exist side by side in the novel. Lynda is a grotesque; Tilly and Sadie are never less than heartbreakingly real.
As with Llewellyn's novel, much of what I've sketched above is satire ripped straight from the front page of the papers, albeit from the supposed quality press rather than the red tops. Crime, punishment, young people, personal data; immigration is about the only buzz issue that doesn't get a look in. The world Ashon presents isn't really a dystopia: he is writing about a post-industrial, post-modern, post-moral Britain where the government is not so much evil as ignorant, absent, and hopelessly culpable. Sometimes this future is cartoonish—SUVs have become SMVs, sport military vehicles—but at other times it is much less so. The outsourced search for the criminal gene that Lynda is involved in is all a smoke screen for making vast piles of cash through data mining, as those involved readily admit:
"They own all the data. And the data's what it's all about. They're not going to find a gene for criminality because there's no such thing. It doesn't even make any sense. But the data..." (p. 170)
The contrast is puzzling. Why refer to SMVs? Or, to take another example, a portmanteau actor called Leonardo Bloom when you can just come out and say Orlando Bloom (as Llewellyn does in his novel)? It is particularly odd since for all the semicomic touches that make up the world they inhabit, Sadie and Tilly are clearly, painfully, refugees from our own world.
Sadie becomes Tilly's surrogate family, preparing her for the role that the state has demanded she fulfil as a newly minted member of the underclass. The streetwise lag taking the fish-out-of-water new girl under her wing is an all-too-familiar prison narrative, but here it is done with a real sharpness and wit. Sadie is imbued with an insouciant sexiness—"Eard of a lickle fing called joyridin?" (259)—that is so alien to Tilly that it is intoxicating and eventually blooms into a desire that is never exactly reciprocated but never shunned either. Ashon charts this relationship and the subsequent journey they undertake together with such affection that, despite his keen eye for the sordid, The Heritage ends up being remarkably tender.
There are some off-putting bits though. There is a strange echo of some of the characters from Clear Water, which is disorientating in its familiarity but does clue the reader in to the fact Ashon is addressing the same concerns. In both novels he is scathing of the middle class, as exemplified in The Heritage by Tilly's parents, and their tendency to woolly, hypocritical liberalism; in both novels he sets this against a depiction of the working class that borders on treating them as noble savages. This is particularly true of the depiction of working class girls, which is interweaved with a sexual element that is even more troubling. In fact, there are no healthy sexual relationships in the novel and there is one (offscreen) act of incest towards the conclusion which is bafflingly unlikely and unnecessary.
Returning to the plot, the fact that Tilly and Sadie—along with all other people convicted of a crime, and their immediate familes—have been entered into the DNA database acts as a catalyst. Their DNA reveals something, but what it is and who it it refers to is concealed from us. Although the plot of the novel is actually very simple, this is obscured by the fact that Tilly and Sadie are ignorant of what is going on and we have to follow them as they blunder and thrash their way through it, cushioned only by Reebok Classics, Marlboro Lights, and Bacardi Breezers. And then we get to the final turn of the novel.
The conclusion of Clear Water was the least interesting part of that novel because, despite Ashon's sure touch at bringing together the elements of his story, the collapse of the wave function is less interesting than the indeterminacy that precedes it. The Heritage, in contrast, only introduces this additional uncertainty towards the end, although it has been signalled all along by what purport to be communiques from a group called the Vanished, which are interleaved with the chapters about Tilly and Sadie. For example:
Imagine if someone built a set of metal legs that could enable him to run inhumanly fast. Imagine if these legs moved so fast, though, that his brain could not keep up and the man lost control... Why on earth, that being the case, would others continue to strap them on? (p. 53)
(If you are well read you may recognise these communiques as actually being the work of some of the usual big-mouth suspects of the Twentieth Century such as Marshall McLuhan, if not you will have to do the same as me and wait to be informed of this by the afterword.)
These communiques are explained at the end of the novel when, to go with the earlier political satire and microrealpolitik, we are given an ideological metaphor made real. The Vanished is not just a catchy name for a political group but the literal truth: its members do actually vanish. I recently reviewed James Miller's feeble Lost Boys for Strange Horizons, another novel about youth culture and vanishing people. The differing treatment is indicative of the different approaches of the two writers: Miller's characters fade out of the world almost indifferently; Ashon's characters are ripped out, the fabric of reality distorted behind them. Their disgust is so strong that they can shape the world.
So The Heritage is primarily a naturalistic narrative—a love story, even—set in a satirical world framed by the intrusion of the fantastic. Or, to use Sarah Monette's taxonomy, it is simultaneously a realistic, pararealistic, and contrarealistic work. Unfortunately this trinity of modes does not form one whole. It is impossible to successfully read The Heritage as all three at the same time, and to read it as just one is impeded by the other two possibilities. If the motivation of this story is disgust and the mode of its telling anger, the confusion caused by the interplay between the three, particularly the conflict between realism and contrarealism, blunts the force of both of these. After reading Clear Water I wanted to read Ashon's next book, and after finishing The Heritage I feel the same way; but both novels are less than the sum of their parts, which is going to pose a problem for him if he wants us to keep reading his books.
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