:: Article

The New Spoilt

By Guy Mankowski.

Tariq Goddard, Nature and Necessity (Repeater Books, 2017)

If, in postmodern life, the world has become a stage set, then Petula Montague’s family have the pick of the décor. Following the death of grand narratives — such as nationalism and religion — the world has become devoid of a sense of objective truth. Goddard’s protagonist in Nature and Necessity, Petula, is a very English personification of this malaise. In the novel’s prologue, whilst describing Petula’s speculative attempts at flower arranging Goddard writes: ‘It did not matter if this [flower] display failed to reflect truth, as even in her own company, Petula did not see things as they were but as she wished others to, the public self the only one she would acknowledge’.

In fitting with such mythomanes, Petula is a protagonist who denies any fixed truths, except for the ‘truth’ of her own feelings. An opening salvo of dialogue has Petula denying even the existence of autumn. In the postmodern world, the actor on the stage designs the stage as they perform on it. All is perception.

In a neat insightful detail Goddard reveals that the Montague family wealth (allowing them to maintain the façade of running a rural farm) in fact comes from ‘factory-farms in The Philippines, owned by Petula’s estranged husband’. This line encapsulates so much. The British progressive classes’ reliance on the sweat of impoverished workers in distant lands. Whilst they perform a sense of authenticity which feels deeply vacant. So too, within Goddard’s novel, is woven the invisible criteria for social inclusion that such families rely upon to survive. Goddard nails the fact that such families see themselves as beyond any question of scrutiny themselves — they have no expectations to live up to. They expect from the world. It is a postmodern appropriation of the colonial attitude. Perhaps knowing that in the north such families build literal and figurative castles Goddard roots the Montagues there. Surrounded by people they deem lowly enough to be useful and invisible. It seems all too apt for him to have the Montagues shopping in a York branch of John Lewis, early in the novel. You can just imagine.

Unusually, Goddard’s novel takes us inside Petula’s pathological, psychological reasoning and keeps us there. This exposition-heavy style, evoking nineteenth century literature, is a high-risk narrative device. The reader’s morbid fascination for a protagonist’s psychological interior is relied upon. I found through Petula that the behaviour of some key political figures (Boris Johnson, Donald Trump) were recalled. She is a person who uses her own psychopathology as a management device. As Goddard writes: ‘Perhaps this was why a shrill current of hurt was often noticeable in her voice, a primary wound she had no intention of closing. Without completely meaning to, she cultivated it, filling it with generous helpings of fresh pain, until the morning came when she awoke to find hurt installed as the organizing principle of her life.’

Even the architecture of the Montague home (which is aptly named The Heights) is bent towards Petula’s psychological will: ‘Large windows ensured good views and little privacy from prying eyes, which was how Petula liked it, the world looking in to see the sisters looking back.’ In this respect Petula personifies The New Spoilt — the upper middle class set, of suspicious means, who use every means at their disposal as psychological warfare to ravenously consume the world. Using the influence offered by their immorally acquired wealth, the blood loyalty of their offspring and the trappings of their class. The mentality Petula embodies is like a curse on modern life. Or a code that, once cracked by the none-to-bright, cannot be uncracked. Yielding as many short-term rewards as it does.

As the narrative progresses we follow as Petula’s gaze falls onto her family. Jasper and Evita are from a previous marriage that Petula considers beneath her, and so they in turn are beneath her too. Evita becomes addicted to heroin during a trip around Europe. Jasper, dubbed ‘Jazzy’, refuses to leave home. He moves into a run-down house on the property. Goddard here personifies the fallout of Petula’s furtive and conspicuous appetites. The left-behind offspring of aggressive neo-liberalism.

Regan — Petula’s favourite — finds herself caught up in her mother’s psychic drama whilst inevitably running herself ragged in trying to appease its endless demands. Beneath the veneer of civility, with its Ballardian sense of threat, is savagery. When, at Regan’s coming-out party, the actor slated to be the new Doctor Who starts barking like a dog we don’t feel surprised by such grotesque turns. Being raised in gentrified York for a while I have known families like this, and parties like these. When individual psychopathy, stoked by rural isolation, becomes group psychopathy. The most terrifying aspect of it all is that you are simply not surprised by such events. As you know that hidden behind the Agas, under the lavish carpets, and festering in the drinks cabinet is a very English savagery waiting to spring forth, with no self-awareness. Goddard describes English savagery in 2017 with wit, subtle insight, and compelling accuracy. Dostoevskian in scope, psychoanalytical in depth, Nature and Necessity is grimly addictive. I found myself both savouring, and in awe of many lines that are almost surgical in their insight.

One aspect of the novel I found strangely moving was the portrayal of the English countryside. Evolving and irrepressible it teems behind Petula in the bay windows of The Heights. Goddard’s polemical critique of Petula’s social class extends even to their indulgent consumption of nature. Containing as it does such dismissal of the natural riches of the world as just another resource in service to their rabid needs. How can the flowers fail to reflect truth, when nothing does?

I have come across one or two reviews that have bemoaned Petula’s unlikeability. With Petula acting as a multi-faceted, figurative metaphor for the world we are living in that seems to me rather the point. Petula, sadly, is England in 2017.

Guy Mankowski is an academic, whose PhD concerned post-punk literature. He is also the author of How I Left The National Grid and An Honest Deceit.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 22nd, 2017.