I haven’t read many novels recently, and the only full length prose fiction I’ve read in the last month was some heavy genrework written by an old university friend. So, while I enjoyed reading some nicely presented fiction written by one of my favourite people, and though I found myself engaged with the intense supernatural horror while reading it, Sam Haysom’s The Moor (Unbound, 2018) still remained supernatural horror, so not really my kind of thing. The villain was a demon and thus the narrative of the novel couldn’t happen in any possible world, which just ain’t my scene, yo. Patrick Langley’s debut novel, Arkady (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018), is similarly not set in the world as it exists, but in a near-future British, hipstery dystopia (#hipstopia innit) that exists as the result of a major economic collapse.
Jackson and Frank are brothers who lost both of their parents when very young. Their mother died in a deliberately ambiguous seaside accident and their father ended up banged up abroad due to some (again, deliberately ambiguous) violence that he commits in grief and rage and frustration in the hours after the death of his wife. This opening chapter is told from a tight third person perspective locked into the childhood understanding of Jackson, the elder sibling. He takes Frank, still unable to walk, on a search for their mother that the reader already understands is fruitless: though Langley only writes what the child witnesses, adult worldliness allowed me, as a reader, to understand far more of the fates of the boys’ parents than Langley ever directly offers in the text. Frank cannot remember his parents, and Jackson chooses not to. Though, when the boys’ father is last heard of at the opening of the text he is alive, he never comes back, and his coming back isn’t the fantasy that the brothers choose to hold tight, once holding fantasy tight becomes a necessity as their home country splinters into deeper and deeper ruin as the text progresses.
The timeline of Arkady covers just under 30 years, but within that the reader is transported through a complete societal collapse. More and more people become unemployed and then homeless, more and more businesses and buildings are bought and destroyed with the intent to build huge, empty skyscrapers on the empty ground. The property market is international, and without a manufacturing base the UK crumbles. People scavenge and squat, there is mass incarceration, brutal crushing of protest, a government in thrall to international property developers (including a company named Pendragon – a little Arthurian reference), and as the boys become men they try to find their way in the world – still connected by a rather surprisingly uncensored internet – and hang out amongst the abandoned office blocks of a Londonlike city. Eventually, they stumble upon an abandoned canal boat (which shares its name with the novel) and then try to escape the cloying governmental repression in the capital by heading, waterbound, towards a rumoured socialist microstate in the North.
As dystopian fiction tends to do, Arkady swings between hope and hopelessness, between the very familiar and things that are made sinister through contextual change. This is a water-heavy novel, as the passage of time not only smashes apart the social fabric of the country, but also raises the sea levels. Langley’s version of a dark possible future is painfully believable through these kinda unexplored, offstage details. The use of floodlight and tear-gas-packing drones as crowd control, the continued normalisation of kettling… Plus the wisely considered societal setting, which is a ruptured country destroyed by money, economics, with the power over the nation withdrawn to an even tinier minority than now. Those without power must either conform to corrupt, militaristic, ideals, or live “outside” of society. This is a novel that presumes right now is “Late Capitalism” – as people do call it – and the near future Arkady depicts is one that could believeably follow the Now.
It’s impressive that Arkady is able to evoke such a richly realised dystopia using so much ambiguity, though maybe it is this vagueness – foreshadowed by the misunderstood disappearance of parents at the book’s opening – that gives it power. Perhaps in this, Langley is showing something true: when the end of society happens, as it will, the average young man and his slightly younger brother probably won’t understand what has happened, just a young child and his [literal] baby brother have no understanding of death or the criminal justice system when alone in a foreign country.
The more I think about it, the more I see this opening is key to the novel. Until I started typing this blog post, actually, I quite firmly felt the opening chapter – and somewhat the last, which we’ll get to – was an unnecessary distraction. In fact, Langley opens Arkady with something akin to a novelistic overture: the themes of naivety and ignorance in response to a catastrophe that is utterly unknowable; an attempt to find safety when no safety exists; hostile representatives of the state who cannot understand and fail to grasp the seriousness of the loss; exterior forces who try to help, but are ultimately helpless, helpless… All is lost, the protagonists don’t understand why and how everything is lost, and nobody else cares: much like what happens when country’s economies do collapse. Those with vilify those without, hoping that those without will fight among themselves and not blame those who are actually responsible. If the narrative of Arkady is what happens post-Brexit – which is itself a response to propagandistically guided discourse mis-appropriating blame for the 2008 financial crisis on immigration rather than the greed of international economic elites – I wouldn’t be totally surprised.
Langley’s novel’s structure works beautifully, sometimes skipping years between chapters, sometimes days, sometimes months, but all of the episodes lock together neatly and provide many expertly drawn peripheral characters (other than in the major mob protest scenes where supporting roles got – to me – a bit muddled, though tbf I did read the book v quickly). The final chapter slips into a stream of consciencey first person for reasons that I didn’t quite understand, because none of the insightful personal observation would have been out of place in the third person voices used elsewhere. But why begrudge a debut novelist an unnecessary little flourish with his curtain call? This is an engaging, realistic dystopia, with a fun hipsterish edge: rollies, joints, barges, social media, tinnies… Langley’s is a dystopia straight outta the Lea valley, but fuck it, it’s the dystopia I’d probably end up in were I to be in one too, lol…
A cracking read, loved it.
Maybe one day I’ll write on this blog about the debacle that happened when I tried to live on a house boat. Not yet, tho. Not yet. Maybe I’ll save that story for people who sign up to my Patreon, newly launched. Lol. Always husslin’.
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