The existence of a book like Everything is Sinister doesn’t come as a huge surprise. Reality TV has by now become an easy fictive shorthand for a certain level of cultural obnoxiousness, and as such a gift for satirists (or would-be satirists), so a story set in a near future which emphasizes the vacuousness or ugliness of the celebrity culture that reality shows encourage hardly feels like speculation at all. (Indeed, there’s at least one other novel published in the UK this year – Glynn Maxwell’s The Girl Who Was Going to Die – that seems to take a similar approach, though I haven’t read it; and Amelie Nothomb’s Sulphuric Acid, translated last year, featured a reality show cheerfully called Concentration, about, yes, a labour camp.) But even beyond this, in attitude and setting Everything is Sinister appears to have similarities with a clutch of other recent novels; I’m thinking of books like Matthew de Abaitua’s The Red Men or Will Ashon’s Clear Water, which like Everything is Sinister are set in darkened versions of our present, in which one factor or another that shapes our lives has been intensified until it threatens to self-destruct. In de Abaitua’s novel it’s modern office life; in Ashon’s, consumerism; here, as noted, it’s the power of celebrity. The narrator, Ed Raynes, is the showbiz correspondent of a (fictional) tabloid called The Voice of the People, and as the novel opens he’s covering the current series of a show called Lockdown, and struggling with his concerns about the likely winner, Colin Curtis, who has an unsavoury past that hasn’t been publicised. Raynes feels increasingly alienated from the world around him, and when he’s beaten up on his way home one evening, he cracks and retreats into his flat to observe what he thinks (and what a very odd neighbour encourages him to think) is the ugly collapse of modern society taking place all around him.
It’s quite satisfying, then, to be able to report that Everything is Sinister largely works; Lockdown is by no means the only sfnal touch in the piece, and the narrative is well controlled, clocking in at a little under two hundred pages. In a number of ways, certainly, it treads ground covered by earlier genre authors. Mostly the resonances are the ones you’d expect — there’s more than a dash of Bug Jack Barron, a hint of Time out of Joint-flavour Dick, and in its portrayal of a complete moral collapse, just a touch of Ballard – but there are also, I think, some interesting comparisons to be made with Stand on Zanzibar. Like that novel, Everything is Sinister is set in 2010, and one way of describing the world in which it’s set is that it keeps everything Brunner got right. So: it’s a future in which overcrowding (if not actual overpopulation) is (at least Ed Raynes believes) literally driving people mad, with riots that spring up for no reason; casual drug use is rife, including a sedative called Derekon and symph, a drug that makes you believe you’re remembering the future; and the world is information-saturated. What’s most striking is the way in which this is represented: as part of his retreat, Raynes immerses himself in the online and televisual worlds, transcribed by Llwellyn in sections that read like nothing so much as The Happening World segments of Stand on Zanzibar. (With a bit more editorializing than Brunner let himself indulge in; although on the other hand, Brunner didn’t have the opportunity to include a hilariously accurate future broadcast of Newsnight Review.) Whether or not any of this is deliberate I won’t pretend to guess — both books have epigraphs that reference Marshall McLuhan, but really all I know about Llwellyn’s genre credentials is that his previous novel was a Torchwood tie-in, which frankly you could take as evidence either way – but it feels like the work of a writer who know what he’s doing.
Llwellyn’s created future is nothing like as panoramic or as dense as Brunner’s, of course, and there is something a little quaint about his inventions: the way The Voice of the People and Lockdown are so patently stand-ins modelled on The Sun (down to featuring “page four girls”, and despite the fact that The Sun is itself mentioned in the novel) and Big Brother; or in the way he gives us an extract from “Megapedia”, or talks about the “Jupiter Music Prize”; or in the sorts of brandnames he comes up with (to my ear, “C-Fish”, the novel’s supercharged Blackberry-equivalent, just doesn’t work). But accepting this backdrop, in many cases, Llewellyn’s eye is good, in particular his detail of the banality of modern media life. A paroled contestant from Lockdown goes to a club where, “instead of dancing, she strikes dance-like poses” for a photographer, “a breathing waxwork begging to be immortalised” (16); press junkets and exclusive parties seem as “ephemeral as snowflakes” (51); when hiding out in his flat, he watches the streams of commuters with his neighbours, “as content as men watching a sunset” (62). His eye for the specifics of place isn’t bad, either, which is just as well since he spends quite a lot of time describing things; but even the obligatory Canary-Wharf-is-sfnal moments feel relatively fresh.
But I think what ultimately makes Everything is Sinister worth reading is velocity. It doesn’t waste any of its pages; the narrative is divided into succinct chunks that come (like blog posts) with handy subject lines and timestamps, and the further into obsessive despair that Ed Raynes slips, the more biliously claustrophobic is the cumulative effect. “Something is wrong with people” is a repeated refrain in the novel’s second half, uttered with increasing conviction in the face of a parade of black-humoured plot twists, as Raynes appears to disappear down the rabbit-hole of his psyche good and proper. Ultimately we come to understand just how complete Raynes’ self-imposed lockdown is, how completely impotent are his attempts to rage against a culture thirsty for ever less inhibited forms of “reality”, and that there really is no possibility of parole; for us as well as him.
A little over half-way through Everything is Sinister, Ed Raynes is enticed into leaving his flat by the intoxicating violence of a nearby riot. When he reaches the scene, he finds himself — for once — in front of a camera, rather than behind, and observes that there is “something other-worldly about existing, however briefly, on the flip side of a television screen” (107). It’s a psychological observation that becomes literally true in Haruki Murakmi’s most recent novel to be translated into English, After Dark (2004/2007), where it serves as the central lynchpin of weirdness in a more cerebral exploration of urban alienation. It’s also just one iteration of what is probably After Dark‘s USP, namely its concern with perspective. Unlike in Llwellyn’s book, we get little or no description of place beyond some initial scene-setting, a diorama of hyperconnectedness that’s enough to call to mind all the traditionally cyberpunky images of urban Japan. Where this story is set isn’t half so important as who is telling it and who it’s about.
The narrator turns out to be an anonymous, first-person-plural omniscient narrator who directs our attention to a series of figures within the landscape. Depending on how you identify the narrator – at times it seems like it could be a supernatural entity, at others a manifestation of urban consciousness (if you squint, you can almost read it as an urban AI), and at still others simply a metafictional reflection of the reader – the book can be read in different ways. But whichever way you take it, the narrator frames everything we know about the characters in a much more explicit way than most novels, gently guiding us to look first one way and then another. The character it spends most time watching is Mari, a college freshman we first see sitting alone in a Denny’s, just before midnight, reading a book. She’s joined fairly quickly by Takahashi, a guy who sort-of knows her (he knows, or would like to get to know, Mari’s sister), and they have the first of what is one of many slightly rambling conversations that punctuate the story. These conversations veer unpredictably between the banal and callow and the incisive and moving — Mari and Takahashi talk about, among other things, what to eat, why siblings are different, and how to live a good life. The story spiderwebs out along connections from this initial meeting to take in the staff at a nearby love hotel, an overworked salaryman, and Mari’s sister Eri, who turns out to be the girl who disappears through the TV — an eerie sequence, made more unnerving by the narrator’s insistence that they can’t intervene: “We follow the same rules, so to speak, as orthodox time travellers” (27).
If humanity in Everything is Sinister is being driven wild by over-saturation and over-connection, in After Dark something like the opposite is true: we are never more separated than when we are crowded together. The nocturnal setting — the entire novel takes place in one night, with, as in Llwellyn’s book, each short chapter bearing its own timestamp — is offered as a liminal zone, a place where different worlds can meet and start to mix in a way they wouldn’t do during the day. The city is presented more than once as something living, as a “single collective entity” (3), whose circulatory system transports data, consumables and – tellingly – contradictions. It’s at night time, apparently, when these contradictions start to surface, when they can be challenged and renewed, and when the barriers between worlds — not just between Mari and Takahashi, who come from different peer groups, but between the criminal and law-abiding worlds, and even the fantastic and the real – are most frail. And yet all of these worlds are part of a “single collective entity” (3). One of the locations to which the story returns several times is, as mentioned, a love hotel, with the rather revealing name of Alphaville, explicitly after the film: “in Alphaville”, Mari explains, “you’re not allowed to have deep feelings. So there’s nothing like love. No contradictions, no irony.” When Mari confirms that there is sex in the film’s Alphaville, her interlocutor muses, “Sex that doesn’t need love or irony [...] Alphaville may be the perfect name for a love ho” (60). Or, put another way, Alphaville is a place of no contradictions, an abstracted image of a city rather than the real thing.
After Dark is never less than engaging, is often charming, and a couple of times unsettling; but it has a problem, which is that the central point of view is as limiting as it is freeing. A narrator who belongs to all and none of the book’s worlds can aspire to the pretense of impartiality, can (for example) chill us with its voyeuristic depiction of Eri’s somnambulistic journey into TV-land; but for all that it holds the promise of revealing the real urban landscape, it ultimately cannot convey the experience of it. Like Ed Raynes, Murakami’s narrator watches and catalogues, but After Dark‘s final contradiction is that we never enter Mari’s world in the way that we enter Ed’s: it’s on the wrong side of the screen.
One of the two narrators of The Story of Forgetting is a stranger in the modern world, too, but that’s because it’s literally grown up around him. Abel is an old man, living alone in a small house in suburban Texas, surrounded by modern developments that have gradually encroached on the open spaces he used to know, and by which he seems stubbornly indifferent. (He has a horse; when he rides it to the shops we’re told “he rejected the industrial revolution as though it were one man’s opinion”, 74). As in the above two books, Abel’s story is one of observation, but his focus is himself and a recollection of his life and the losses he has endured. “I have no choice but to remember everything,” he thinks. “So much has changed” (68) And so much has been lost: twin brother Paul is gone, as is Paul’s wife, Mae (one of a number of women in the book who get a slightly raw deal, although there’s a lot of misery to go around in general); as is the daughter that might have been Abel’s, as the result of an affair, or may have been Paul’s. No surprise that Abel’s stories are marked by self-loathing, loneliness and self-pity; and yet they draw us in. Abel is a hard man to like, but easy to listen to.
Seth Waller also knows that remembering isn’t easy, and also finds himself compelled to remember anyway, if for a different reason: “only because I’ve sworn myself to full and total honesty,” he tells us, “will I remember it now on purpose” (21). “It”, at this point, is a specific incident in the gradual erosion of his mother by Alzheimer’s disease: how he discovered his mother after a fall. This and other memories, such as the night she wandered off in search of home, carrying a suitcase full of rotting meat, go part way to explaining why Seth – in high school at the time – decides that the solution is to devote himself to learning as much as he can about his mother’s condition, and the brain in general. The more Seth learns about the particular (fictional) variant of Alzheimer’s afflicting his mother – it is early-onset; it is heritable – the more he wants to learn. He gets his hands on a copy of a research database, which describes the distribution of the EOA-23 gene responsible for the disease across North America. He starts visiting whichever sufferers he can reach, in an investigation whose depiction of sadness is sometimes unbearably poignant, and sometimes uncomfortably pornographic. It’s not until very near the end of the book that Seth learns what is obvious to us, watching him, from early on: that he’s trying to learn how to understand his own life, as much as the disease that’s blighted it.
Braided with these two strands are two others that explore the same concerns in ways that tend to be just a little two obvious. One is a genetic history, following the propagation of the gene for that variant of early-onset Alzheimer’s from its creation in the DNA of one Alban Mabblethorpe, lord of Iddywahl. English names are not Block’s strong suit, but he can write about the mechanisms of molecular biology with not a little poetry — replication gone wrong causes the polynucleotides “to fray and recoil like hair over a flame” (55); the beginning of Memory, the start of biochemical life, is “a simple repetition of a few simple units, like a bar of a song stuck in one’s head” (240) – and, perhaps because they achieve a bit more distance from their subject, these sections contain some of the most engaging in the book, ironic in tone but precise in detail. And then there are the stories of Isidora, stories told to both Abel and Seth as children, of a land without memory, “where every need is met and sadness is forgotten” (13). “There are places where you can cross”, the novel’s opening states, but it’s a false promise: Isidora remains a story throughout the novel, serving as a commentary on the power and seduction of fantasy.
Which is where the novel both succeeds and fails. What there is to admire in The Story of Forgetting is in the specifics: the voices of Abel and Seth, the way science and sorrow are both transmuted to story, the particular scenes that live in the memory. The tales of Isidora are perhaps the purest expression of this virtue. For all their brevity, they can be startlingly eloquent, and the complexity with which they recapitulate the world grows throughout the novel. I can very nearly believe in Isidora as a necessary consolation: like the eternal sunshine of a spotless mind, it is a story told to make the story of forgetting bearable to watch. But in the end, it also exemplifies the contradiction at the novel’s core, which makes it a hard book to love: because while sentiment demands justice, intellect refuses it.
If The Story of Forgetting is about making something ugly bearable through beauty, Woodrow Phoenix’s latest graphic novel, for all that it’s never explicit, is about revealing ugliness. Rumble Strip is a polemic against irresponsible car use, not on environmental grounds but on the simple and arguably more immediate big-lump-of-metal-moving-scarily-fast grounds of safety. The opening pages imagine a world in which every building had a grand piano hanging outside it, suspended by a couple of strings, as a way of freshening up our perception of the risks of driving; and the rest of the book is similarly blunt. Drawn in stark black/white/grey, it is extremely well-paced, measuring the rise and rise of a pulse of anger, and it understands the seductiveness of cars in greater depth than simply the way they represent a lifestyle choice. I think Phoenix goes too far in his discussion of how people rate “best car” exclusively by speed — I just don’t think that’s true, even among hard-core car nerds — but the basic point stands, and there’s no doubt he makes his case for an imbalance in modern society, that we cede too much to the car, with power and skill. The book’s ultimate triumph is its artwork: it never shows a real person, or a car. Nearly every page unfolds as if showing the view from behind the windscreen in an ostensible driver’s paradise, the truly open and empty road. But it becomes an eerie and irrational world: a segment that emphasizes the commanding nature of the lines in an empty car park is particularly potent.