Currently sitting at 12 to 1 for this year’s Booker Prize, first-time novelist Paul Kingsnorth has set the cat among the pigeons through the disarmingly original expedient of submitting his offering in a fictional language. Composed in what Kingsnorth calls the ‘shadow tongue’ of ‘eald anglisc’, The Wake explores one angle of the ill-remembered insurgency that arose after the Norman invasion: that of ‘buccmaster of holland’, freeman of the Fens.
Buccmaster believes the old gods built the Roman roads and talks about ‘angland’ in a time when much of the population has only just finished being Danish. He has no truck with ‘cyngs’ and does not answer Harald’s call to Hastings. But when ‘geeyome the bastard’ arrives with his punitive taxes and rapacious knights, Buccmaster finds himself inspired to launch a violent rebellion against legal, financial and cultural annihilation.
History will not permit that he succeed, of course, so perhaps it does not much matter that Buccmaster is delusional, cowardly and generally a disastrous leader. But his political objections are entirely legitimate, not least regarding a people’s access to their native language: ‘all that we is is bean tacan from us’. It has been a long time since Buccmaster’s descendants had cause to view themselves as victims of a conquest, but this remarkable feat of literary sympathy puts us right back in his apocalyptic vision of the end times for ancient England.
Rather more recent British history repeats itself in Randall, Jonathan Gibbs’s scathing pseudo-memoir of the Young British Artists and the art market under Cool Britannia. In a parallel artiverse where Damien Hirst died in the late 1980s, Ian ‘Randall’ Timkins has taken the London contemporary scene by storm, selling ‘holographs’ to the rich and famous derived from their own used toilet paper. He and his circle hang out in the pubs around Goldsmiths, attend events they ‘affect to despise’ and say profound things like, ‘There’s only two things you can do with art: make it, and buy it.’
Randall and his retinue occupy a milieu that’s equal parts Geoff Dyer and Bret Easton Ellis, and if the overall tone is just a fraction too refined for a City-boy narrator, whose idea of culture was once a ‘signed and framed’ poster of Cindy Crawford, it’s a credit to Gibbs’s writing (and the YBAs) that you don’t need to have paid any conscious attention to the art world over the last twenty years for all of this to still feel familiar. If you can only put up with the slightly obnoxious characters, in fact, Randall is ideal for those who already dismiss most contemporary art as just so much Merda d’artista.
Aaron Thier’s The Ghost Apple belongs to the more full-blown variety of satire. Tripoli College, a fourth-rate New England liberal arts institution – established for the betterment of ‘Indian Scholiasts’ – has been hit hard by the financial crisis, thanks largely to its overexposure to the company that manufactures Monopoly money. The college forms a new ‘partnership’ with Big Anna® Brands, a snack-food corporation, the ethical commitments of which include ‘the introduction of clean Human Power™ plow technology’ on its Caribbean plantation estates. One of these is the island of St Renard, where Tripoli’s ‘Field Studies Program in Tropical Agriculture’ enables politically engaged students of all creeds and colours to experience life in a Big Anna® republic.
With his merciless spoofing of course-listing gobbledygook and ‘brand history’ vacuity, Thier’s hectic assemblage of prospectuses, slave narratives, ‘Scandal Vulnerability Assessments’ and insane (but basically verbatim) Victorian health advice marks him out as a potential successor to the late lamented Tom Sharpe, and reaches a new high – which is to say low – for the satirical campus novel.
In Deepti Kapoor’s A Bad Character a young woman from Delhi comes into adulthood at the turn of the millennium, amid a human geography of cyber-boom and rampant development but also abysmal poverty, corruption and obsession with the country’s nuclear neighbour. One of a generation of schoolgirls who were told that they would be ‘the future of India’ but still find it unsafe to go out at night without ‘a man and a car or a car and a gun’, she sidesteps her aunt’s incessant attempts to marry her off and begins a turbulent physical relationship with an ‘ugly’ young man with whom she makes eye contact one day in a busy restaurant. He is the first person she has met who lives on his own, and he becomes her guide to parts of the city that have been thus far inaccessible.
Although the story is not exactly a happy one, the boldness of our protagonist is redeeming: in a setting one expects to be peopled with trapped or defeated women, her determination to forge her own genuine, personal experiences (however painful) is important. Kapoor’s prose, though, is a bit overwrought and self-consciously modernist in places, and her whistle-stop tour of what should be the seamier aspects of the capital occasionally seems to be ticking boxes (‘Lutyens’ Delhi’; ‘monumental grandeur’) for the ‘international’ audience.
In The Scatter Here is Too Great, Bilal Tanweer does a better job of maintaining the flavour of something from another culture. Nine interlinked stories – focusing, in threes, on ‘A Writer in the City’, an old communist poet and a young man who steals cars from defaulting bank customers – orbit at various distances around a bomb blast at Cantt Station in central Karachi. In delivering these disparate viewpoints and dimensions of big-city life, Tanweer purposefully introduces an element of narrative opacity and incoherence. But although each individual strand is not without interest, no one section is particularly substantial or rewarding, and the book as a whole struggles to generate much momentum. Ondaatje-esque reflections appear here and there in support of Tanweer’s approach – ‘True stories are fragments. Anything longer is a lie, a fabrication’ – but, bluntly put, this collection could have done with a little more fabricating.
No such complaint could possibly be levelled at Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know. ‘As a child,’ announces one of his Sebaldian co-narrators, ‘I maintained the expectation that obscure and difficult things would be discussed.’ Rahman satisfies that expectation in spades and with considerable control and polish. On one level, this is the story of two boys from different sides of the tracks and, indeed, from different sides of what used to be East and West Pakistan, who meet at Oxford in the late 1980s and then go on to work in high finance until one loses interest, retrains as a human rights lawyer and ends up in Afghanistan.
On another level, this book is a colossal investigation of the difference between seeing and knowing and understanding, taking in geopolitics, the banking crisis, black swans, NGOs, game theory, the British education system, cartography, war, primatology, Christopher Hitchens, carpentry, Glyndebourne, translation, naval pennants, cognitive sciences, black holes and Bath Olivers. Deeply insightful and limitlessly quotable, this is the kind of book every novelist dreams of writing and no first-timer should ever have had the chutzpah to attempt. As Rahman’s own narrator says: ‘nothing in his account was out of place, nothing extraneous.’
The same cannot be said of Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood. One drought-ridden summer John Cole shuts up his bookshop, gets lost driving out of London, breaks down and ends up being invited into an unofficial lunatic asylum, the occupants of which, for some reason, believe they were expecting him. He stays a week. Why? He is frustrated, even scared, by his new companions (Perry is good at the tiny details of mistrust and uncertainty); he thinks they are all lying to him; they are. But he doesn’t leave. Is he perhaps there for his own treatment? We are not vouchsafed an explanation.
Thanks to the litter of symbols and portents (think Henry James rewired by Murakami, or Virginia Woolf directing a sequel to The Village), After Me Comes the Flood consistently feels like it’s about to have a lot going for it. But there’s ultimately no pay-off, leaving the impression that it was all just an exercise in atmosphere.
There are no such loose ends in Katherine Faw Morris’s Young God. When her skeezy mother dies falling into a ‘witch-tit freezing’ river, trailer-park teenager Nikki decides to take control of her life and sets about making something of herself – specifically, a drug dealer. In two hundred short, violent and often unpleasantly sexual pages, Nikki goes about her emotionally lobotomised progress, smoking Kool menthol cigarettes (‘the best thing that’s ever been in her mouth’), shaving herself like a porn star and responding to what should be major life events with a perfunctory ‘Oh’.
The basic so-what-ishness of the ending is perhaps unavoidable, given the context. But Morris’s punchy and unwavering style is absolutely of a piece with her unforgiving environment of post-Palahniuk white-trash girl-power.