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Fancy Dress Rules

By Anna Aslanyan.

darktimes

Dark Times, Daniel Kramb, New Generation Publishing 2011

Those who have never been to Dalston don’t know what they are missing. Or perhaps they do – there are lots of websites that give you a fair idea of the place, from this cabinet of curiosities to numerous hipster-spotting blogs. In a nutshell, this corner of East London has a super-hip status, so cool the locals never sweat or change into summery colours. Now we also have Dark Times, Daniel Kramb‘s atmospheric first novel, where the author portrays his neighbourhood with enthusiasm, humour and a touch of bitterness.

The book spans a few months in the lives of four young people whose accidental meeting brings together a bunch of ambitions, anxieties, and aspirations. It all starts in the winter of discontent, that gloomy December 2008 when hopes are on the wane, then jumps to spring and culminates in April, with London suddenly alive with protests. “Oh, glorious success, every office abandoned, every street jammed. The entire city was up in arms.”

The novel’s characters come across as recognisable and, at the same time, one-dimensional, but then again that’s what people do, in East London and everywhere: they dress up as if to parody not so much a particular style, but a single feature of that style that fits into one catchy word. This kind of social mimicry is an easy way to belong and stand out at the same time, and Dalston is a perfect vantage point to observe a variety of fancy dressers. Take a look around: graduates of St Martins College of Art and Design look exactly the part and spend night and day over patterns and sewing machines in their newly refurbished little shop. Fashion photographers play by the rules too, wearing quiffs and super-skinny clothes and talking about underage models with disgust. Musicians cycle to gigs in vintage duffel-coats, their instruments dangling precariously from their backs.

This is often reminiscent of Tom McCarthy‘s Remainder, where the protagonist can’t shake off the feeling that everyone around him is acting a part, fakes, the lot of them, symbols of inauthenticity in the deeply inauthentic world. Life often unfurls as a tape of stereotypes, so Kramb’s decision to cut his characters out of coloured paper is understandable. Lizzie is what you might call VARP, a ‘Vaguely Art-Related Person’ (a term used by William Boyd in ‘Snapshots’, a short story also set in Dalston). A wannabe artist and actress, she lives is a shabby flat above Ridley Road market and starts her day with a can of Stella. Jonathan poses as a classical Shoreditch hellbender, at least to begin with, stumbling around seedy nightclubs and bars in his erotic pursuits and nursing hangovers in the office the morning after. Sarah works on a newspaper, dutifully touching in and out every day, wondering if she has the guts to take her life under control. The most amusing caricature is Max, a failure by all standards, who gives up his hunt for a dream job to become a self-styled revolutionary leader.

Kramb’s heroes are disappointed hopefuls (another word often associated with the Dalston crowd), hostages of their mobile phones and social networks. Locking herself in a Hackney Wick studio to work on her “Great Project”, Lizzie puts all her energy into it, “reaping the return due for liberating this mind from a drink-fuelled succession of catch-up, match-up, the pubs of East London as her living room and not a chance, trapped in side a never-ending chain of shit-chat, tit-bit, hob-nob, sob-sob.” Although we never see her masterpiece, our expectations are raised high by the rap-like song and dance she makes about it. Max is struggling with a speech that would shake the world; he also punches the air a lot, is dying to impress Sarah with his new image of a rebel, and, presumably, sports a North Face anorak (or a similar one he can afford) and a pair of thick glasses. He may be keeping up the local radical traditions, from Mary Wollstonecraft, a proto-feminist who used to live nearby in the 18th century, to the Angry Brigade that were based here in the 1970s, but his hard-core predecessors would probably find him a bit of a softie.

The idea of dressing up for a part applies not only to the characters – the book itself is using several layers of clothing and make-up to play the role of a Mildly Experimental Novel of the Noughties (MENON – there you go, even though it might have been coined before). Written in punctuated phrases (“Three words like a knife. A sentence like a stab”), its paragraphs are often a line or two long; there are plenty of definitions verging on the aphoristic (“a world that might be a little fucked up, but would never stop being the most extraordinary thing any of them would ever experience”) and pregnant pauses filled with repetitions:

Max twisted his fork.
Sarah played with her earrings.
Lizzie moved her zip.
Up.
And down.
Up.
And down.

Whether or not this approach is fully justified is a matter of personal taste. And if the author’s aim is to convey the sense of disjoint, anarchic, feverish conversations people usually have when they are frustrated and looking for inspiration, it works well enough. There appear to be influences of Lee Rourke’s The Canal in the novel; boredom sublimated by Rourke to its purest level is a theme the two books have in common, but Kramb’s characters might be too young and impatient to embrace it, to discover its beauty. You wonder what will become of them after they go their separate ways in the end, affected by a burst of violence that closes a chapter in their lives but solves nothing. It is sad to think that they may well get proper jobs, settle with partners, get on a property ladder – in other words, shed their fancy outfits and join the grey masses of daily commuters. You’d like to hope they can get totally real without losing their cool.

anna

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 1st, 2011.