:: Article

Above the Fat

By Thom Cuell.

Thomas Chadwick, Above the Fat (Splice, 2019)

The title story ‘Above the Fat’ of Above the Fat opens with a chef preparing to fry an egg. He waits for the perfect moment to crack it into the pan: ‘he checks the temperature of the pan and makes a minute adjustment. If the fat is too hot when the egg hits the pan, it will burn; the white will turn to rubber, the yolk will split. No. The fat must not be so hot as to do damage.’ His perfectionism is a product of training in France, with a chef who told him ‘A hen can only lay one egg a day, so an egg is a whole day’s work for the hen. You burn one egg, you’re on a warning. You burn two, and you’re gone’.

As he devotes two minutes to frying his perfect egg, we get a picture of his unappreciative clientele, who demand ‘flavourless’ over-done burgers; the impulses that dragged him back to his hometown, after he dreamed of travelling the world; and most significantly, his relationship with his father, who had once shared a taste for fine dining, but is now satisfied with burgers and nachos, an indication of his incipient dementia. The chef has found that there is no longer any demand for the food he is trained to supply, and he is unwilling to adapt to his circumstances. As a result, he has no sense of belonging. Like Orwell’s Coming Up For Air, the serving of ersatz food has a wider implication; a sign of a diminished society, of England as a second-rate country.

This thwarting of ambition, and lowering of standards, is the recurring theme of Above the Fat, which identifies a millennial sense of lost opportunity and diminished expectation, handling it with subtlety and humour. Equally representative, and relatable, is ‘And the Glass Cold Above His Face’, in which a window cleaner is left clinging onto a ledge on the 79th floor of a skyscraper after his platform collapses. This could easily be the set-up for a Stephen King short story, but Chadwick twists the tale in a different direction: the window cleaner spots another man, also clinging on, further along the ledge. Suddenly, the story becomes a tense choice between cooperation and competition. If one falls, is the other more likely to be spotted? Or can they survive through mutual support? It’s a perfect metaphor for a post-crash society, isolated and without a safety net.

Elsewhere, ‘Purchase’ uses a couple’s futile attempts to buy practical trousers and edible fish to address the overwhelming anxiety of choice in the modern marketplace, and dreams of a ‘new economy, one based on gifts and not purchase’, while ‘A Sense of Agency’ is a bleakly comic look at Londoners’ attempts to deal with climate chaos and muddle on (‘buying tickets for gigs at Alexandra palace and refusing to leave… visiting Crystal Palace for days at a time’), alongside the story of a man in his thirties attempting to maintain a veneer of normality as his life crumbles around him.

‘Bill Mathers’, meanwhile, satirises the figure of the curmudgeonly ageing novelist, presented by an amanuensis, a young man who responded to a classified ad: ‘Old man, blinding writer. Seeks reader for short walks and zero conversation’. His pearls of wisdom are a mixture of boastfulness, pub bore wisdom, fishing chat, ignorance, gossip and name-dropping. Ted Hughes: ‘shit at fishing’. Walter Benjamin: ‘people go round quoting him like he’s a pal. They miss the point: you’re not meant to think he’s your pal’. Zadie Smith: ‘she farted once at the Booker ceremony. Cleared the room. Still didn’t win though’. The smug satisfaction and complacency displayed by Mathers is the same energy behind a thousand opinion pieces bemoaning the death of the novel, or the popularity of Sally Rooney.

The highlight, though, is the 2017 White Review Prize shortlisted ‘Birch’, a piercing satire of late Nineties capitalism, and the chaos wrought on traditional industries by the advance of digital technology. Opening in 1997, characterised here as a time when ‘music was jocular. Sport was effusive’, the story follows a young man who inherits a timber company from his father. Swept up in the euphoria of the time (‘all the fucking optimism about all the fucking houses’, Chadwick observes, adding a note of cynicism), he swiftly abandons old suppliers, and attempts to diversify, planting a forest of birch trees, which will produce pulp for paper manufacture. In 19 pages, Chadwick shows the puncturing of this optimism, the lowering of standards in the rush to produce more and more, and the way that traditional industries first fractured, and then were swept away by unforeseen technological changes, which led in turn to a consolidation of resources by a small group of players who were able to acquire their competitors at knock down prices in the aftermath.

‘Birch’ provides the context for everything else that occurs in Above the Fat; the remainder of the collection deals largely with the psychological and economic impact these societal changes would have for the generation that grew up in its wake. Throughout, Chadwick is insightful, his writing spare and bleakly comic. In this short debut collection, he stakes out his literary territory, identifying a topic and approaching it from multiple angles. There’s a clear need for writing which can investigate the fault lines which have emerged in society after the economic crash, and subsequent austerity. Chadwick, with his sharp wit, is well placed to address this.

Thom Cuell

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

This is the latest Republic of Consciousness Book of the Month. The Republic of Consciousness is an organisation that rewards and supports small presses, primarily through its yearly literary prize.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 10th, 2019.