:: Article

Reflexive misanthropy

By Max Dunbar.


Wildlife, Joe Stretch, Vintage 2009

But youth is a journey with no destination; its road trails off to dust and empty nights.

There’s a point in Joe Stretch’s first novel, Friction, where the author makes a clumsy homage to Michel Houellebecq: “a French writer… Michel Something or other.” Comparisons seemed justified, given the amount of sex in the book, and the amount of theorising about sex and society. In his interview with 3:AM, Stretch told Andrew Gallix that “I firmly believe that certain discourses of liberation have, as well as ‘setting people free’, been damaged by a culture of forgetting to the extent that we buy, we survive, we fuck each other’s brains out with no sense of the prior debate, the struggle, the reasons, the cost.” Friction was a structural mess, but it was an interesting, entertaining mess, full of such wit and observation.

Wildlife is just disappointing. Wildlife is like a Houllebecq novel without the originality, the compassion, the plotting, the discipline, the character development… without most of the things that gave Houellebecq such an impact when he published Atomised in 2000. All you’ve got is a reflexive misanthropy (“Human beings are shit,” Stretch told City Life. “Aren’t they though? They’re shit”) and relentless scatology. For Stretch all things come from the arse. Shopping is like shitting, blogging is like shitting – everything is like shitting. At what passes for the book’s climax, the author “still can’t shake the feeling that life is too short, that we just cling to the porcelain with all the other shit, staring up, praying that a well-aimed jet of piss doesn’t spray us away.” I mean, I’m no prude. I’m Irvine Welsh’s biggest fan. But if you’re going to be crawling through the gutter, you need to be looking at the stars.

There is a roster of interchangeable characters. Anka is a TV presenter who taunts the sexually frustrated men who call in to her post-pub show. Her name rhymes with ‘wanker’ – and believe me, that convenient bit of phonetics gets a good milking. There’s a guy, Roger, who Stretch uses as a cipher to parody blogging culture. God knows bloggers take themselves far too seriously and the medium carries a danger of becoming a floating head. Roger posts as ‘El Rogelio’ and can’t have a bowel movement without writing about it. Eventually, he blogs so much that, get this, he turns into a computer. And shits a motherboard. This is watered-down Burroughs. And Burroughs wasn’t even that fucking good.

The reason I’m being so harsh is that throughout the book you see flashes of something better: glimpses of tenderness and insight. At one point Roger “feels like the small featherless bird that lives inside his heart might be coming back to life, trying to open its sealed-up eyes.” This is the kind of line that made Friction such a strong debut. It’s like that moment on a grey day when the clouds shift and a ray of light comes through. But most of the time, Stretch is content with his lazy puritan satire, a satire that, since the crash, seems even more pointless and irrelevant. He described his fiction as “a warning for a society that is overburdened by too much leisure, too much fun, too much playful rubbish.” To paraphrase [Martin] Amis: look out onto the street. How much leisure do you see?

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, April 4th, 2009.