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Reacting against limitations, rejecting capitalist realism

By Thom Cuell.

Carl Neville, Resolution Way (Repeater Books, 2016)
MKL Murphy, The Isle of Minimus (Repeater Books, 2016)
Dipika Mukherjee, Ode to Broken Things (Repeater Books, 2016)

In the run-up to the 2000 American presidential election, Marilyn Manson observed that he was hoping for a Bush victory, as ‘I think music and all art really flourishes and becomes much more exciting under a conservative president because there’s a need to react against limitations.’ The Antichrist Superstar might have been playing devil’s advocate, but if there is any truth in his words then maybe we should be gearing up for a period of massive artistic innovation on both sides of the Atlantic.

For this to happen, we need publishers who are willing to engage with political issues, and pursue a radical agenda, rejecting the ‘risk-averse’ mantra of mainstream publishing. The UK can already boast Verso, operating predominantly on the non-fiction side of the market; Repeater Books, a new press set up by the founders of Zero, is championing the fiction of political dissent, as evidenced by their three newest releases.

Reacting against limitations is part of the Repeater Books philosophy. Their vision calls for a rejection of ‘capitalist realism’ in favour of writing which combines ‘vigorous dissent and a pragmatic willingness to succeed where messianic abstraction and quiescent co-operation have stalled’. They dismiss the idea of the artist existing on a plane removed from the everyday: ‘abstention is not an option: we are alive and we don’t agree’. In terms of style, they oppose the ‘fashionable cynicism, egotistical self-reference and nostalgia for the recent past’ which plagues 21st Century arts and letters. So how does this work in practice?

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Resolution Way by Carl Neville is the most immediately relevant example of this philosophy being put into action. With its references to a London Independence movement sparked by England’s decision to leave the EU, the novel feels eerily prescient. Neville presents a dystopian vision of the near future, in which a paramilitary police force known as the USG brutally cracks down on dissent, workers are bussed into Central London from special compounds, and large areas of the north have become no-go zones.

There is no specific, calamitous event which has sparked these changes: they are presented as the logical consequence of the process of precaritisation, ‘a moderately paced, sustained unpicking of any kind of safety net… dystopia by stealth’. Most strikingly, Workfare has developed into a programme of ‘Giveback’, in which debt to the state is paid back through forced labour, in prison-like conditions. Debt can be generated through student loans, collecting unemployment benefits, or through any form of non-criminal antisocial behaviour. This represents the final transformation of the state into a corporate entity, provider of services at a cost. Public services are accessed on a two-tier system, with individuals assessed for ‘Viability’ by an algorithm which takes into account capital, education, attitude and employment prospects: a credit rating system which determines individuals’ freedom of movement.

Neville employs a structure used by authors like Zadie Smith, exploring society through a series of interconnected lives and multiple narrative viewpoints. The plot of Resolution Way is held together by the legacy of Vernon Crane, an author and musician who disappeared in 1996. Although he is absent throughout the text, he provides the link between Neville’s narrative voices. Alex Hargreaves, a dilettantish author with more than a touch of Nathan Barley about him, hears of Crane’s writing at a party, and decides to pass it off as his own. The only problem is that Crane left each chapter of his book with a different friend, and Hargreaves is forced to track them down.

This task enables Neville to investigate the idea of cultural appropriation. While Crane may have seen his friends as safe-keepers of his work, for Hargreaves they are nothing more than barriers to his success, to be manipulated, cajoled or overcome: his motive automatically trumps their ownership. There is a strong class element here, as Crane’s friends lack the resources and contacts to put the story together in the same way that Hargreaves can. This theme is expanded later as Neville describes wealthy collectors buying up subcultural relics: trainers which were worn to famous raves, compilation tapes shared by friends. Nostalgia is transformed into something tangible and commodified, in the absence of any contemporary artistic movement.

Resolution Way isn’t an entirely successful novel – the narrative voices aren’t distinct enough, some plot threads are lost, and the author’s refusal to use contractions annoyed me beyond reasonable levels – but the vision of a neoliberal brave new world is bracingly confrontational, and it certainly fits Repeater’s policy of active dissent.

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The Isle of Minimus by MKL Murphy fulfils Repeater’s promise to challenge the ‘fashionable cynicism and egotistical self-reference’ of modern literature. Written as one continuous sentence, the novel is a pulp-y subversion of the modernist epic, satirising the importance the genre places on human consciousness through its focus on dwarves and obsession with pop culture.

Particular scorn is reserved for the academic theorists who underpin the genre, represented by the critic, Marcel X, who writes ‘only to pay the bills and with a certain sense of what I must confess to be a certain disdain for my middlebrow audience’. Marcel pencils ‘snide jokes and commentary’ into the margins of Das Kapital with ‘a wry shake of the head at the ignorance of past eras… imagining that his post-post-Marxist explorations might in some way provide a sustaining dialectic for the greater public’, while his attempts to guide political activity on the ground are predictably disastrous.

The novel takes its name from the legendary dwarf kingdom, founded ‘long before the Roman invasion of England’ by the mythical Nain Rouge. It name was later given to the Modernist concrete pavilion which hosted the dwarves at Expo 67, where they ‘would burn unrecognizable effigies of various celebrities who had supposedly offended dwarf culture, then follow this with a grand book-burning on a scale not seen in a quarter-century’. After the Expo, the Isle was relocated again, to Las Vegas: a simulacra of a simulacra, presented to a jaded public in search of exoticism.

In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S Thompson characterised Vegas as the dark heart of the American Dream, where fortunes are made through dumb luck rather than hard work: ‘that vision of the Big Winner somehow emerging from the last-minute pre-dawn chaos of a stale Vegas casino’. For Murphy, it is a ‘vice-squadded necropolis, where nothing meaningful would ever happen again [and] all human relations reduce to thermodynamics’ – the graveyard of culture, where culture is neutered, packaged and commodified for easy consumption: ‘a single shopping mall at the centre of a world-wide parking lot’.

The decadence of Las Vegas mirrors the collapse of the dwarves’ culture; their current ruler, Lord Khazad, is the epitome of the oriental despot, dictating erotic novels from his waterbed whilst the Isle of Minumus swings between totalitarianism and neoliberalism. He is increasingly influenced by the collection of showgirls he has appointed to his cabinet, while his subjects fight a bitter struggle for survival, conducting a long, high-profile strike. His antithesis is Hercule – a long-distance tightrope-walking alcoholic, who fled France in disgrace after a chainsaw-juggling incident which led to the death of several members of Jean-Michel Jarre’s backing band (Jean-Michel Jarre later gets revenge when sound waves from one of his concerts snap telephone wires, leaving hundreds of tightrope walkers dead). Hercule veers from revolutionary leader to drunken down-and-out and back again over the course of the novel, as the dwarves’ fortunes wax and wane.

The single-sentence structure of The Isle of Minimus places demands on the reader’s attention, when coupled with the fast pace and grindhouse tendencies. Murphy’s style, stuffed with pop culture references and eager to offend, wouldn’t have been out of place on Steven Wells’ sadly short-lived imprint Attack! Books (sample titles: Tits-Out Teenage Terror Totty and Get Your Cock Out). A selection of page headers gives a fair impression of the novel’s tone: ‘man-eating dwarves’, ‘an all-showgirl government’, ‘crushed mercilessly’, ‘trail of destruction’. The Isle of Minimus is an audacious, scattergun satire which hits the majority of its targets, and couldn’t be further removed from ‘fashionable cynicism’ or ‘egotistical self-reference’.

ODE TO BROKEN THINGS  front 28.10.indd

Ode to Broken Things by Dipika Mukherjee is the most conventional narrative of the three: a literary political thriller, the novel centres on corruption and intrigue in the Malaysian establishment. The novel begins in grand guignol style, as the mistress of a royal princeling is executed with dynamite by Colonel S, an army officer and all-round fixer. S links the country’s old-school traditions (‘his surname declared that his ancestors once walked with the prophet’) and its modernist aspirations (he has a Doctorate in Material Science earned in the US), making him ‘a Malaysian Boleh Hero… one of the main executors of the national destiny’.

We soon discover that S is at the centre of a web of corruption and conspiracy, as the authorities search for an excuse to clamp down on dissenters. In order to carry out his plot, S summons an old friend, Professor Jay Ghosh, back from the American university he now works at, using an old debt of honour to manipulate him into assisting. However, Ghosh falls for Agni, the daughter of his first lover, who attempts to steer him away from S, towards a more liberal position. Agni is responsible for security at a major airport, which is the focus of S’s attentions; as in all good spy novels, the three characters are drawn together towards a decisive showdown.

The plot takes place against a background of racial tension between Muslims, Chinese and Hindus. There is a growing hostility between Malays and the ‘mongrel breeds’ who have built communities on the island. The ugly national mood will resonate with readers in the UK: ‘Malay hospitality for the migrant races shouldn’t be taken for granted,’ one prominent politician declares. In this tumultuous political situation, Colonel S is the old-school manipulator, an unscrupulous and resourceful soldier, whose mission is to reinforce privilege and the status quo.

The work of liberal bloggers undermines the traditions which Colonel S professes to uphold, revealing the corruption and nepotism which in endemic in the political and financial elites. ‘In Paris and Madrid,’ we are told, ‘the cronies of the government had netted a hundred and fourteen million euros in that submarine deal’ – just one example of public funds being channelled into private accounts through bribes and embezzlement. The establishment reacts by cracking down on the free press: bloggers ‘that got too smart could be locked up forever without a trial under the Internal Security Act, and the government made sure to flex that muscle as a reminder’. Corruption is exacerbated by incompetence, as ‘racial entitlement’ trumps meritocracy.

Mukherjee offers a strident analysis of the nepotism and discrimination which she sees in Malaysian society, and places this in the wider context of the struggle between globalisation and conservatism. However, for me this was the least effective of the three novels, simply for the fact that it was the least stylistically inventive; Ode to Broken Things does what it sets out to do, but lacks the grand vision of Minimus.

While these three books are extremely stylistically varied, collectively they address many of the most serious political issues currently at stake: the effects of globalisation on culture, precaritisation, corruption, austerity and authoritarianism, and do so in an inventive, non-dogmatic style for the most part. And, with the possibility of a Trump presidency and Article 50 coming up, Repeater should find plenty of material for forthcoming releases.

Thom Cuell

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Thom Cuell is the editorial director at independent publishing company Dodo Ink, and tweets @TheWorkshyFop.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 25th, 2016.