Book Review

The Passengers by Will Ashon

an excellent book

October 17th, 2022

cw: class, mental illness, body image, anti-Tory vitriol

I read this in the summer, and kept putting off noting down some thoughts about it because it’s really very very good and I felt nervous about stringing together some thoughts to do justice to what is undoubtedly one of the most powerful and significant examples of British creative writing of recent years.

Why this nervousness?

Because Will Ashon wrote a glowing and insightful blurb for my second best book (to date), the pleasure of regret, and I didn’t want to offer comments on his work that didn’t at least tinkle around the edges of articulate and deserved praise.

However, my mental health is atrocious (physically I’m ok, but only by comparison to the general British populace, whose complexion indicates they think it is cholesterol, rather than water, we need six cups of a day), and my self-esteem is slight, but my ability to procrastinate is up there in my top five skillsa, so it never got done.

Whoops.

I mean, I understand, obviously, I’m not a fucking naif (socioculturally); Will Ashon and his publisher, Faber, haven’t been waiting with baited (bated?) breath for the potential sales boost of a TriumphOfTheNow.com mention, as there were (rightfully) gushing reviews pumped out in several actual newspapers when the book was released earlier in the year.

In fact, I went to the launch, way back in August, like many of East London’s literary hipsters (“you were there and you were there and you were there”) and a surprising amount of West London’s literary non-hipsters (i.e. people who dress and talk in a way that is designed (or bred or trained) to convey that they both read a lot (early and often) *and* vote Tory a lot (early and often)), though I can’t imagine there are many of the latter reading this.

If there are, I’m sorry, I’m an anarchist (though not in a punk way): I believe every single institution that upholds your (and mine, and ours (as in all the East London literary hipsters), too) material and cultural privileges should be dismantled.

I can – and do – often argue/posit that the invention and widespread use of the printing press was one of the worst things to ever happen.

Education is indoctrination.

Enclosure is an act of violence.

Nothing should exist that isn’t of the commons.

No property rights.

No government.

No industry.

No electricity.

Average lifespans back to the healthier, more normal, more natural, 40/50 years, even when excluding infant mortality from the stats…

I’m 34, which is quite frankly far too old to not be considered ancient.

There shouldn’t be people twice my age (thank god I’ve aged past the point where there are people thrice it): I am a beacon of wisdom, I am a powerhouse of experience and understanding; I am old, old, old, I should be as comparatively old as I actually am.

I am as a sage, I should be out to pasture (not to stud, I don’t think that highly of myself), not continuing to bounce around the lower end of the second quartile of standard working age.

Sorry, got a bit distracted there.

It’s my first day working after four months to myself, I’m irked that I must once again be in the world.

Why?

So I can have some nice holidays and buy a treadmill so I can continue to exercise daily without having to go out of my way to the gym (or jog around the park, which just seems undignified).

Eh?

wtf?

///

The Passengers continues the reported speech, Svetlana Alexievich-style writing of Ashon’s 2020 Open Pen novelette, Not Far From The Junction.

This time, tho, rather than a handful of voices and conversations that all occurred on the same day during a pre-pandemic (as in like three years ago, not the 90s) hitchhiking trip, Ashon includes well over a hundred voices who spoke to him about various aspects of being alive in the UK during the few years prior to the book’s completion.

I – and I wouldn’t be surprised if several of you reading this – were amongst those interviewed by Ashon, but the ways in which he began and expanded those conversations varied throughout the period of the book’s composition.

Obviously, during the COVID-19 pandemic, riding around in strangers’ cars and trucks was less of an activity to do (maybe not, tho, in COVID-denying England?)b, so the conversations Ashon has written into testimonials (that might be the wrong word) here are not collected from further hitchhiking trips, instead they are collated from all sorts of face-to-face and digitally-broached methods.

Ashon speaks to intellectuals and untellectuals, nobodies and somebodies, the powerful and the powerless, the happy and the sad, the content and the deeply unhappy, the sick and the well, the immigrant and the person who’s barely left their birthplace.

Ashon spoke to this polyphonic plethora of contemporary British voices – many of which are the kind of voices you rarely see in literature (especially literature published by Faber and read by the kind of people who dress and talk in a way designed to convey that they both read a lot (early and often) *and* vote Tory a lot (early and often)) – and with somewhere between a sentence and a few pages, Ashon takes these histories, narratives and lives and turns them into brief, episodic moments where the reader is lifted into a life unlike their own.

Reminiscent of Svetlana Alexievich (I know, I said that already) and the Alan Burns “documentary novel” The Angry Brigade (the best British book from 1973 that you haven’t read (I have read it and it’s very very excellent)), The Passengers offers the artfully-constructed impression of unfettered access to the thoughts and feelings of utterly disparate people.

To question how much of this book’s construction was dictation rather than composition is to misunderstand the project (no one’s doing that, I’m second guessing myself as I was just about to do that), because not only is the selection and editing of the sections that make up this book central to its success and potency as a literary work, but to even think this (you stupid, stupid, potential scott manley hadley of moments ago) is akin to claiming a director did not make a film because they were neither visible in their entirety in every single frame and also for not being a camera.

I didn’t invent the English language, but if anyone were to try and claim I hadn’t written this blog post because I hadn’t created this mode of expression, I would be so livid I could push a concrete slab into a canal (after making sure there were no waterfowl and/or waterfolks underneath).

The Passengers offers a collage-like depiction of the UK that is powerful as a complete whole, but is composed of sections that work potently on their own.

Maybe, yes, the very humanist, egalitarian and progressive conclusions that are implicit in Ashon’s choice of humans to depict (and thus humanise) will be lost on those readers of his who dress and talk in a way designed to convey that they both read a lot (early and often) *and* vote Tory a lot (early and often), it is some solace to realise that for a few fleeting moments, Ashon will have definitely made some very very awful home counties types accidentally feel compassion for someone their voting record indicates they would genuinely like to see dead and/or never born.

This is beautiful, painful, powerful writing.

It is neither hopeless nor naïve, neither pessimistic nor delusional, it is human and humane and offers an emotive, artful, intelligent and (crucial here!) non-patronising look at lived reality in the UK that takes us far beyond the M25 limit of the lives of us East London literary hipsters and West London literary non-hipsters.

Highly recommended, and – one hopes – en route to a place in the contemporary literary canon.

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