‘How’d our family fall apart?’, a question many of us will have asked with varying degrees of seriousness, is taken to the extreme in The Shore, an intergenerational novel set on a cluster of islands off the coast of Virginia. The lives of Sara Taylor’s characters ebb and flow with the distinct violence of a place that prides itself on taking the force out of hurricanes. The book culminates in the future, when the islanders are recovering from a fatal virus that rots the sex organs from the inside out. The Shore is an Eden, of sorts, eternal and utterly fallen, shattered by poverty, drugs and general neglect. One character returns in 2010 after being diagnosed with an ‘obsessive spiralling’ of the mind, a condition that could apply to all Taylor’s characters, who are addicted to an island that harms as much as it heals.
Taylor’s prose is painterly, with ‘smudges’ of indigo, gold and green, while recurring images – of dusty oyster-shell roads, light dancing in the trees, bruises seen and unseen – galvanise the narratives. The author has a gentle way with free indirect discourse, shading between the simile-laden descriptions of a modern teenage girl, the singsong drawl of Prohibition America and the ‘Iwant Iwant Iwant’ of a sex-starved carpenter; in 2143, however, the language can verge on parody. Still, Taylor’s genealogical tableau is a success, with ‘less detail, more pith’, in the words of one character.
Also in search of some kind of promised land are the characters in Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish, son of the revered editor Gordon Lish, aka ‘Captain Fiction’. Although the novel was well received in the US, its importance nonetheless risks being sidelined by an almost fetishistic preoccupation with Lish’s previous incarnations as a marine and blue-collar worker. Unravelling in New York City – failed Eden par excellence, its ‘famous skyline minus the two towers’ – the novel focuses on the relationship between Skinner, an Iraq veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and, incidentally, ‘crotch rot’, and Zou Lei, an illegal Chinese immigrant. An unlikely Adam and Eve, their story is coaxed to its grim conclusion by Jimmy, a second-generation Irish immigrant newly released from prison; Jimmy completes a trinity that links the nation’s army, its absolutist immigration policy and its corrupt penal system. Here is a ‘land of milk and honey’ processed and mechanised beyond recognition: as Skinner struggles to move on, subsisting on a cocktail of antipsychotics and alcohol, Zou Lei works fourteen-hour shifts in a fast-food joint, and the borders between military, civilian and prisoner experience are increasingly eroded.
Lish excels at dialogue, generally delivered in broken English or heavy slang. Sharp character sketches emerge from the city’s underbelly, each crystallising something of the society in which the protagonists live, or seek to live. A Chinese restaurateur captures the zeitgeist: ‘I want a big plate. The big plate generates the atmosphere of freedom. The modern culture. Ah! Now I am so free, so magnanimous, so relaxed.’ There are nods to Dos Passos’s USA trilogy in Lish’s documentarian gaze, while the prose is of the pared-back kind one might hope for given his heritage.
It’s difficult to conceive of a novel more different from Lish’s than Jesse Armstrong’s Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals, a very British account of blundering towards maturity in the 1990s. What the novels do have in common is war, and a kind of love story. Armstrong is best known for his television writing, including Peep Show, a comedy about two feckless flatmates, and The Thick of It, the political satire responsible for rescuing the term ‘clusterfuck’ from 1960s obscurity. The same blend of ebullience and world weariness is found here when, in a muddle of desires, Andrew, a self-diagnosed ‘spineless shit’, joins a group of would-be activists intent on taking a ‘peace play’ to the heart of the Bosnian conflict (‘like Sontag’).
The novel suffers from some of the strains one might expect were an episodic farce to be stretched and pinned to feature length, and, as with the point-of-view shots central to Peep Show, Armstrong’s devotion to first-person narration with little room for interpretation would be irritating were his protagonist not also so endearing. There are unexpected moments of poignancy, too, and something darker and more self-aware than the obvious jokes in his portraits of confused and disenfranchised youths in search of something to fight for.
The coming-of-age narrative gets a more picaresque treatment in Stevan Alcock’s Blood Relatives, which plays out in West Yorkshire between 1975 and 1980, when the region was enthralled by the Ripper murders. The novel is delivered in the rakish brogue of Rick, a gay, punk soft-drinks delivery boy whose primary concern is with ‘getting khalied’ while exploring and concealing his new-found sexuality. His progress is nonetheless punctuated by chapters that take the name of each of the Ripper’s victims.
The conceit works well, with Rick’s wry observations and the skewed reactions of a commedia-like cast of characters capturing a society on the slide, where collective outrage and regressive views, epitomised by the rise of the National Front, are a distraction from the kind of domestic fragmentation consistent with unemployment, exhaustion and the keeping of secrets. ‘This house is full of people pretending.’ As the news gets worse, Rick’s stepfather takes out a loan on a bigger television.
Alcock’s ingenuity is his sense of perspective: by chronicling record releases and club- and pub-nights alongside major historical events, from the global recession to the rise of Margaret Thatcher (‘who’s going to vote for that stupid cow?’), the author builds a subtly shifting mood-board for the times. It is Rick who, perhaps more than any other character in this accomplished clutch of novels, speaks to today’s culture of rolling news and knee-jerk politics, which looks the other way while families fall apart.