Book Review

I, Nerd by Max Sydney Smith

another nice book review descends into dissociated left-wing raving

cw: mental illness, suicide ideation, radicalisation

Something I often avoid doing on this blog is writing about work by people who I know IRL. Actually, that’s not true, scratch that, start again-

Something I often avoid doing on this blog is writing about the work of people who I know at all, whether that is online or offline.

I’m particularly reticent to discuss the writing of people who I feel like I kinda owe something, somehow, y’know. That’s one of the reasons, I suppose, why I don’t really interact with people socially (or by choice!) very much anymore, a crippling fear of transactional demands and expectations that it is easier to avoid and thus ignore than attempt to navigate.

When I was at my worst, psychologically (see my poetry collection, Bad Boy Poet), Max Sydney Smith was one of the people who genuinely and practically contributed towards my staying alive.

Now, the cynic-depressive and dismissive part of me (which encourages and demands the use of humour as a crutch) is screaming at me to insert a sentence here saying something like “I should hate Max Sydney Smith and the other people who genuinely and practically did things to keep me alive (for a pretty comprehensive list see my least read and possibly best book, hip-hop-o-crit) because I’m not 100%- no, because I’m not even 60%- no, because I’m not even 40% satisfied with the life I have lived since that point haha lolol yadda yadda yadda”, but

But

But

But, I do begrudgingly have to accept that my failure to create any kind of meaningful-feeling or sustainable life in the 6 years or so since my annus horribilis (annus lol) is not the fault of those well meaning do-gooders (see, I can’t resist making light of it) who made sure I didn’t kill myself following all of the things I’ve written multiple books about, so any negativity aimed at them would be ill-placed.

So, neutrality reigns: just as I’m not going to gush about I, Nerd because Max Sydney Smith found me a job when I was technically homeless and in a big mess, I’m also not going to tear apart I, Nerd because Max Sydney Smith (and others) did intervene (booo) and without that I would likely have continued spiralling and would probably be dead and at restful peace now. Balance.

Although, if it hadn’t been for Max Sydney Smith’s intervention in that way and at that time, I never would have served a pizza to a literal James Bond. But, the James Bond I served a pizza to was only Timothy Dalton and the pizza he ordered was only a Margherita, so, again, neutral.

(Timothy Dalton and margheritas: simple, classic, old school. What a gentleman. Please sound off in the comments about what pizza toppings you imagine other James Bond actors might like! I can imagine Roger Moore hated tomatoes or something and Daniel Craig probably etc haha haha lol.)

–///–

I, Nerd is not so far away from the kind of narrative that I have lived.

The protagonist in this novelette (though it could probably get away with calling itself a novella in another life) is Robin, a single 27-year-old in rapidly gentrifying East London whose “tabletop gaming” (I think Warhammer is the never-mentioned brand name?) club venue is under threat from the homogenising forces of 21st century capital expansion, i.e. the building is going to be knocked down and the site used for almost certainly hideous contemporary apartments.

Obviously (that’s a joke because I don’t think it’s obvious), I’ve never played tabletop games where you like paint little models and then go to war, but I’ve definitely played Risk irl many times and I enjoy the odd game of Sid Meier’s Civilization, which – if I’m reading Sydney Smith’s description of this game correctly – is kinda a digitised version of the games Robin plays.

Had there been more people less cool than I was in the prepubescent bits of high school, then tabletop gaming is perhaps something I could potentially have ended up falling into at the tail end of childhood. Of course, though – like effort, education, exercise, schoolwork and long-term goal-oriented actions – once puberty arrived and with it the eternal effervescent and unrelenting deeply physical and psychological urge for constant intoxication (be that romantic, literary or substance-based), I would have stopped. Hearts are for playing with, not toys, ammaright??? 😜

–///–

There’s a section near the start of I, Nerd in which Robin remembers being bullied at school for being a nerd who was into nerdy things, and how – although this was horrible – the only way to make it stop was to turn away from unfashionable pursuits and join in with the bullying of those who were even less socially acceptable. Sydney Smith’s novelette doesn’t dwell on this – on the hypocrisies of the ways in which society encourages us all to be cunts in order to avoid the brunt of society’s cuntiness – but it is there, introduced at the start and (weightily for me) floating in the peripherals of the readerly consciousness as one slowly slips and slides through the text.

–///–

This is a serious piece of prose about microcultures and the kind of people who are forgotten and overlooked and bullied and often end up being radicalised into fascism.

Although only one of Robin’s gang of tabletop gamers explicitly and frequently expresses wrongheaded moronic right wing bullshit, there is a tolerance for his speechifying that paints a bleak, and sadly realistic, portrait.

Losers are being radicalised all around us – I’m a loser, too, of course (in like terms of material/financial/status/power etc, all the ways that “matter”, tho obviously most “losers” haven’t been quoted in the New Yorker), but I’m not being radicalised into fascism because I understand that fascism (cruelty – capitalism – Industrialisation) is fucking vile. But it’s happening, it’s out there, and it’s often (mostly) the only ideology out there actively recruiting people, albeit people who don’t like thinking and believe they deserve or are due things that no person deserves or is due, yadda yadda yadda, scott manley hadley back on their vitriol against the ignorant (especially those who choose to be ignorant of their own ignorance, smdh ammaright???)

–///–

I, Nerd is engaging and evocative writing of the kind and of a focus that one often doesn’t see any more – Robin doesn’t become a school shooter or whatever the English equivalent is (a member of the conservative and unionist party of great Britain and Northern Ireland ammaright harrumph harrumph boomboom but seriously what’s the difference???), but nor does he find the human connectedness he wants and “grow out of” (as it were) the tabletop gaming that he has reverted to following a breakup he (as narrator) implies is recent but may well not have been.

It’s gentle prose, and even with the more serious issues (conformity, acts of bullying as initiation, the return of the extreme right wing in mainstream politics) raised, the text doesn’t feel like or become allegorical or digressive: the centre of the narrative remains Robin’s interest in playing games, in recusing himself from “serious” responsibility and seeking only comfort in the places and amongst the people with whom he is already comfortable.

Maybe, rather than treating this hobby as embarrassing or shameful, we’d be a lot happier “as a society” if we let people live inside their little bubbles. But, within the capitalistic system as already exists ubiquitous, with its focus on “growth” and profit, there will always be people fighting and clawing for increase of material/financial/status/power and forcing division and sick, corrupt, competition and violence between small groups.

It is not playing tabletop games and being “single” that “drives” people like Robin to fascism, it is capitalism that engenders a sense of “failure” in those who ascribe to the (wrong) idea that structures which are normalised are good, and it is capitalism that tells these people that they are right to feel this failure and it is fascism that tricks them into thinking that it is neither them nor the system at fault, but instead the radicalisee must blame people of other races, religions, genders, sexes, cultures, nationalities, sexualities, hair styles, body types, etc etc etc.

It is extractive capitalism that removes the commons from us, it is right wing ideology that closes the libraries and reduces education, it is capitalism that is obsessed with “ownership” and “property” and bullying and coercive control on a near-global scale.

Sorry, where was I? (I don’t get out much. I’d rather not bore the weirdos who choose to read my blog than bore “normal people” irl.)

Oh, yeah:

I, Nerd is a moving and engaging piece of fiction about loneliness and the damages of gentrification. It’s thoughtful, nuanced, excellently pitched and I would highly recommend it.

I thought it was excellent.

Order direct from Open Pen via this link (and stock up on the rest of their excellent books – one in particular 😜😜😜 – if any are missing from your collection)

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