In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, the novelist Sally Rooney spoke of her ambivalence about ‘writing entertainment, making decorative aesthetic objects at a time of historical crisis’. This is the perennial dilemma of the politically engaged writer. Rooney’s novels are far from apolitical, but they succeed in part because they adhere to the received wisdom that a literary novel must wear its politics lightly. Given the polarised state of current politics, this is by no means easy. Recent novels by authors such as Ali Smith, Howard Jacobson and Sam Byers have directly addressed the present political turmoil – Trump, Brexit, the migrant crisis, the rise of Big Tech – with at best mixed results, bearing out André Gide’s surly edict: ‘C’est avec les beaux sentiments qu’on fait de la mauvaise littérature.’
Olivia Laing’s fiction debut, Crudo, doesn’t buck the trend. The narrator-protagonist of this quasi-autobiographical novel is an author called Kathy who has just got married for the first time. (The name is a tribute to the experimental writer Kathy Acker; the book is littered with references to her life, in homage to one of Laing’s heroes.) Kathy, who is forty going on fourteen, says things like ‘could we just fucking abolish not even gender but people’. Her interior monologue is a succession of startlingly trite ruminations: on whether the power of tattoos derives from their permanence; on the burden of starting one’s day by reading the news when the news is invariably bad; on the strangeness, now that she is married, of not being alone all the time.
The novel’s claim to relevance consists in its itemising of the narrator’s angst about the world situation, which she observes mainly through Twitter. Adapting Jean Baudrillard’s famous remark that the Gulf War was primarily a media event, Kathy observes that it sometimes feels as though the news happens not in the real world but online. Cue a highlights reel of 2017’s news cycle, dispatched with minimal affect. The experience is familiar enough, but the puzzle of rendering the internet rabbit hole on the printed page remains unsolved. The matter-of-fact enumeration is at odds with the nonlinear nature of digital reading, a gap Laing valiantly tries to bridge by embellishing her prose with various avant-gardist frills: a comma splice here, a sacrilegiously unpunctuated list there.
Kathy speculates that ‘Someone was getting rich on all this … Food insecurity, water insecurity, the collapse of the state, sick desperate people, it was an excellent way to make a buck.’ Her political engagement rarely extends beyond wallowing incredulity: ‘How had all this happened?’ ‘She missed Obama. Everyone missed Obama.’ One doesn’t necessarily want a lecture on political economy, but this is surprisingly basic. Although Crudo’s halting tedium fails to convince as fiction, it unwittingly skewers, in the unintended satire of its own complacency, the hand-wringing impotence of a beleaguered liberalism.
Sophie Mackintosh’s debut casts a more allusive nod to the contemporary political moment. A strange story about three sisters raised in seclusion by a mother obsessed with protecting them from men, The Water Cure has a particular resonance at a time when women’s reproductive rights are under renewed threat. Grace, Lia and Sky live in a remote house that was a refuge for ‘damaged women’ before the patients stopped coming. Through a series of reminiscences across multiple narrative perspectives, we learn that the sisters were subjected to systematic emotional and physical abuse aimed at ensuring their loyalty to the family unit.
Three men come and stay at the house, occasioning ‘disturbances in the feminine fabric. Subtle warps, new ways of doing things’. Lia falls in love with one of them, Llew, bringing her into conflict with Grace, who jealously abides by her mother’s doctrines. The mad intensity of first love is deftly illustrated in conversational exchanges. When Lia says she hates mussels, Llew says he loves them, whereupon: ‘Slight panic in my chest. “I don’t hate them,” I retract. “But there are other things I would rather eat.”’ The spiky loyalist Grace has the best lines. When one of the men is moved to tears, she is exquisitely callous: ‘He does his ugly man’s crying with no regard for us. I am essentially compassionate, so I let him get on with it.’
The narrative is high on visuals. Lia spots a bird: ‘Its trail is faint; it is far away, a sharp gleam in the sky.’ Watching Llew play the piano, Lia notes, ‘He and the piano are perfectly placed in a hot rectangle of sunlight.’ One scene features a blood moon and a shooting star. With its languid narration and soft-lens dreamscapes, The Water Cure deserves a Sofia Coppola-style big-screen treatment, although its cultish overtones and sinister denouement are as reminiscent of The Wicker Man as The Virgin Suicides.
Occasionally the ethereal dreaminess is slightly overcooked. The stylised use of ‘thing’ to convey delicate weightlessness is excessive: ‘My feelings are limping, wretched things’; ‘his gaze on me like water, like a thing I deserve’; ‘my body a thing stricken, a thing radiating disease’; ‘loss is a thing that builds around you’. For the most part, however, the prose is well crafted and assured. The novel’s strength is that we never quite know what to make of the girls’ fierce loyalty to the family bosom: is it a regressive impulse or a necessary protection against a world replete with threats? The Water Cure doesn’t preach; it pokes and prods, nudging us in both directions at once.
Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City is similarly cinematic, its portrayal of multicultural London heavy on atmosphere: ‘them deepest nights when the lights sketch out the scene and the sounds of cars ripping wet streets and all you hear is buses gassing up and sirens fire’. Its narrators are multiethnic and multigenerational. Caroline (from Belfast) and Nelson (from Montserrat) are first-generation immigrants who share an aversion to violence. Caroline left for London after refusing to be an accessory to a sectarian gang rape; Nelson’s early years in west London were marred by skinhead thuggery, but he decamped to Neasden rather than get sucked into a race war.
We meet younger, second-generation immigrants with the city on the threshold of interracial violence. Yusuf feels a sense of dread in the air: ‘it had all gathered some new foul manner I couldn’t place.’ The novel’s most striking feature is the author’s skilful and convincing deployment of non-standard English. ‘Tho’ is tacked onto the end of the preceding word with a hyphen to convey the rhythm of accented speech. Here Selvon urges his friend Ardan, an aspiring rapper, to use his musical talents to escape his surroundings: ‘I see it every day fam and I’m like, this is a trap-tho. London is a perpetual fuckery blood … Need to look beyond it, get me?’
Gunaratne’s humane tableau of immigrant life is a timely riposte to the toxic rhetoric that has swept across Europe and the USA. But the foregrounding of social strife entails a foreshortening of human experience in its totality: actual life happens at the interstices of struggle and suffering, but you wouldn’t know it here. Cliché is too strong a word, but certain motifs – the poetry of the streets, the narrative of hard knocks and redemption, the city as a living, breathing organism – reside somewhere on a spectrum of overfamiliarity.