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Will Ashon’s Clearwater

Susan Tomaselli hails Will Ashon’s “assault on not only consumerist culture, but on identity, false idols and a blistering critique on even the quirks that define modern Britain”.

“If being a Messiah was easy everyone would do it.” So says King James, one of the characters from Will Ashon‘s six-handed trick of a novel, Clear Water (seven, if you count Clearwater itself). Though it’s set around a gargantuan underground shopping centre at the Thames Estuary, and the “tomb of late-twentieth-century consumer culture” connects the disparate narrative strands, it’s as much about shoppers’ paradise as Michael Bracewell’s Perfect Tense was about the office: that is, not at all. In Ashon’s hands, Clear Water becomes an assault on not only consumerist culture, but on identity, false idols and a blistering critique on even the quirks that define modern Britain: “England. This England. This is England.”

The aforementioned King James is one of those great English, slightly dangerous eccentrics that readers of JG Ballard are well versed in: a “true connoisseur of disinformation,” King James treats us to a heady mix of “biography and parable all the way,” which, when a diligent reader ploughs the lies that King James freely admits to, discovers that the man is not only a violent ex-bogey man, but a certifiable nutter who has re-invented himself as a saviour, a rescuer of a “society in decline, a society losing touch with its traditions and values .. anchored only by their database selves.” And, along with his Man Friday, Binary Rob, “final defenders and pioneers,” plans to do just that, ensconced in an old sea fort turned into an off-shore data haven, not a virtual home to the filth and scams the ‘net has to offer, rather all the major data sources for the whole nation backed-up. “From the Sea will come a Man who is more than a Man and that Man will reveal himself a God on this Earth and his Kingdom shall be called Vernaland. Or something like that.”

The other main protagonist is the less likeable cultural cartographer Peter Jones, a wrung-out lifestyle journalist for the Abtruser, who “doesn’t write about the horror of life — of death and dismemberment and rape and torture and massacre — because he is a genius, or as close as you get these days.” Remember, “this was not the Age of War, but the Age of Expensive Shoes With Fantastic Hand-Crafted Applique,” and as “muscular prose about coffee or sofas” go, Jones is your man. It is through Jones that we experience the Clearwater Experience, lit by the “revolutionary Sunlite Ambient Glare,” where under “the giant, corneacopic eyes” of evil conglomerates Barnum Corporation — “knowledge is the power to serve you better” — shoppers flex their purchase power. Jones has hit on the idea of writing a coffee table book on the centre, and uses Clearwater employee Mandy Hart to mine information from, a project abandoned when he learns that his rival, Daniel Mercurine, has got there first with Glaucous Gleam, a “Longtitude of shopping” and “like Orwell crossed with Barthes and Bill Bryson,” an apt description of Ashon’s own book, though to that I would add Martin Amis, Ballard, and perhaps Douglas Coupland.

Shop-girl Mandy epitomises the emptiness of shopping culture: nothing unique, nothing interesting, “nothing to render it transcendent.” Of the characters, she and her brother are the lest satisfactorily drawn and a little, well, blank. Rob is as 2-D a computer geek as they come, “binary tattooed down his right forearm — 100001 – six digits carelessly gouged out with a compass and filled with Bic ink, even his attempt to do a Manson looking childish and ill formed,” a chap addicted to hacking who would “undoubtedly be in prison by now, or working for Microsoft” (“hard to be sure which is worse”), and Ashon tells his story as translated ASCII, replete with SMS-like shorthand and an aversion to capital letters: “what looks like just 1s and 0s to u is beutiful [sic] 2 me. is sense.”

A more interesting, lesser character — though connected as much to the Clearwater centre as much as the others, through his brother who owns the tat shop in which Mandy is employed — is disgraced cricket bowler Jaimin ‘Jimmy’ Patel. Ashon turns in a fine piece of Bukowskian lowlife squalor and drunken desperateness with Jimmy, riches spent, employed as a sportswear salesman through a Barnums subsidiary, his former glory gone: “Then, with pills sticking to cradled fingers, back to couch. Nothing has changed in his absence and nothing will ever change. He knows this. But still nothing will dull. He craves dull. Foot gently taps an unemptied bottle, his tenderest motion. Hand moves floorward and grasps it gently where body slides into neck. The pills go down with the first drink of the day. Used to be the best. Now just the first.”

Which leaves Verna Landor, former wartime singer-turned-junkie and muse to King James, a woman who “belongs to an era where people accepted the truly magical without question .. an original .. can have only been put on this earth only to take part in myth, to play a role in creating Great Religion,” and whose song ‘No Man Is An Island’ King James has taken quite literally: he turns her into Veranland’s “hot and wet Virgin Mary.”

Though not as clever as JG Ballard, nor as weighty as Martin Amis, Clear Water is far from shabby. Ashon has written a terrifying, not-so-distant picture of the future, in which we are all complacent. Many of the elements of Clear Water are already in place — the mammoth shopping centres with boutiques geared toward niche tastes; the lack of privacy; consumption, not production ruling the roost; Sealand, the strange archipelago off the Kent coast (what’s he doing on there?) — and he builds the momentum right up to the bristling final, apocalyptic pages, where ultimately everyone is fucked.

Susan Tomaselli lives in Ireland where she edits the inimitable Dogmatika. Read an interview with her here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 8th, 2006.