A few weeks ago, and a year late, I posted a review of Mark McNay's debut novel, Fresh, and I had no problem recommending the book. So you can imagine my delight when an advance copy of his second novel, Under Control, dropped though my letterbox a few weeks back. Like the first book it was a quick read – I finished it in three sittings – but it wasn't simply a rehash of the same characters and themes; McNay has moved on and in more ways than one.
One of the things that attracted me to Fresh was that is was set in Glasgow and the characters and their dialogue were very real to me. Under Control is not set in Glasgow; it's based in Norwich which I'm afraid had to Google to find its location. For most people that will be a relief. Personally I missed the Glaswegian setting. The language is different of course but I missed the familiar Scottish turns of phrase. I have no idea how they talk in Norwich. Sorry Norwich for being so ignorant.
Okay, let's look at the players: Gary is a junkie and a recovering psychiatric patient; Charlie, his girlfriend, also has a habit which she funds by selling her not entirely unattractive body on the street; Nigel is Gary's social worker; he is also responsible for Chris and Ralph, friends of Gary; Clive is their supplier and let's just say I wouldn't want to be his wife. Got that? Oh, and there's Galileo who is a French Legionnaire, his nemeses, Gaston and Betts, and Chastity the nun who miraculously saves him from death during the test of a nuclear bomb. Yeah, they don’t really fit do they?
Each chapter of the book covers a day. Each day is broken down into short sections. Sometimes it's Gary's story, sometimes Charlie's, sometimes Nigel's … and sometimes the Legionnaire who's sometimes a British soldier on the streets of Belfast. Yeah, I know. Oh, and Gary gets to narrate his own bits. All the rest are in the third person. It takes a couple of chapters to get into the swing of the book especially since during the first day when Nigel visits his clients they're all speaking in their the-system-is-really-working-for-me voices and we don't get to see the real characters till the second day. So expect a slow start. But it picks up quickly enough as this interchange from the start of Day Two between Gary and Ralph demonstrates:
Have you been in at my dosh?
Are you fucking sure?
I never touched it.
You fucking better not have.
Ralph moved back to the door.
Right, I'll go now, he stuttered.
Fed up with me are you?
Well why do you want to go?
I thought you said I had to.
Sit down you stupid cunt.
He sat on the couch.
Do you want some tea?
He nodded so I went into the kitchen and put the kettle on. Then I grabbed a mug out of the cupboard and as I put it on the worktop it slipped and smashed on the floor. I shouted to Ralph.
Do you still want tea?
He shouted back.
Well get in here and clean up this mess.
He came in and I gave him a dustpan and brush. He got on his knees and started to pick up the bits of mug. I got another one out of the cupboard and waited for the kettle. I looked at Ralph and had the urge to boot him to fuck and back…
It was a strong urge.
Ralph, I said.
Best you get out of here.
You will have noted the strong language. If that wee bit put you off then the book's not for you. It's full of expletives. This is how these people talk. And there are no marks to indicate someone is speaking.
Since Gary gets to narrate his bits you might be tempted to think this is his story but it's not. Like any ensemble piece there is a focal point and that's what Gary is. He is by far the most interesting corner of a rather predictable triangle: his social worker takes an interest in Gary's girlfriend and goes to extraordinary lengths to get her into rehab and to keep Gary, who he regards as a bad influence, out of the picture. But Nigel is not only an overworked and unappreciated social worker, he is also human … and his wife is away with her work on a training course.
Charlie has been on the game for a long time. She's jaded and doesn't want to do what she's doing any more, especially since she blows the vast amount of her money on drugs. Nigel's offer is too good to be true. But a hooker, as you might imagine, has a fairly cynical view of the male species. Is Nigel the "guardian angel" the book's blurb would have us believe? Nah, I didn't think so either.
Are all junkies stupid? Yes, of course they are. Anyone who does that to themselves has to be stupid. But that doesn't mean they're not intelligent. Gary manages to be both. In his bedroom he's building a model of the human psyche – which he describes as a sphere – with bits and pieces stolen, with great ingenuity, from Homebase. If the model for McNay's first book was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (which it was) then I'm tempted to suggest that in the intervening months he's been dipping into Samuel Beckett's Murphy. In case you're curious, it ends up looking a bit like an octopus, his model of the human psyche. During a trip to the seaside Gary also displays the kind of insight into the human condition that I've only heard expressed more succinctly by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World:
Do you know when sometimes, for a split second, you think you know the answer to life? Then it all crashes and you realise you don't? he asked.
I think so, she said.
His hands mimed holding a sphere.
Well that's the moment your thoughts are echoed and amplified around the emptiness.
She didn't know what to say.
Trouble with most people is they can't handle it, so they avoid facing up to it by trying to fill it up. It's like they're treating their most valuable possession as a fucking rubbish dump.
He pointed to a fat man waddling down the street.
I mean, look at that cunt, he's trying to fill it with doughnuts.
But maybe he gets hungry, she said.
Gaz screwed his face up with contempt.
Nah, he said. The hole inside is making him feel that. Hunger's just how it looks on the surface.
How do you know? she asked.
He tapped the side of his head again.
I just do right?
And then there's our little lost Legionnaire. To say he's out of place in the novel is to state the obvious. So, what's he doing there? It's a good question and not something I care to go into because his periodic appearances kept me turning pages even when a lot of the real action was taking its time getting where it was going.
The world of drug addicts is not a pleasant one. Just remember what went on in the film Trainspotting and you've got the general idea. Now, I'm not sure if it's because it's been done before and done very well, but even though McNay's descriptions are accurate enough I'm tempted to say these scenes feel just a little as if they were written by someone who had done their research well rather than someone who had been there. I could be wrong. I've not been there. Or perhaps, to use film parlance, this book is a 15 rating and that's fine – I have an imagination and I don’t need everything spelled out for me. The conversations bothered me a bit. I would have expected more euphemistic slang and just plain course language. But what do I know about how real junkies talk to each other?
Bottom line: would I recommend the book? It is a good believable story. Despite the fact I spent three days on it, I was keen to find out what was going on. What kept me reading was the Legionnaire's story more than anything and I also wanted to know what was going on in that damn bedroom. McNay drip feeds us information. He's wise to do this and it reminded me of Brautigan's approach to writing Willard and his Bowling Trophies where we have two completely different stories that seem to have nothing to do with each other but finally come together at the end. Well, this is like that and McNay does a good job grafting these disparate elements together. Of course, he knows what's going on from the jump but that's the writer's privelege.
None of the characters are especially likeable, not even the minor characters; there's no hero to root for and there's no especially happy ending. I could say that it didn't end as I expected and that's true but some of the things did pan out in a fairly predictable manner. There was a part of me that hoped something might turn out differently, that someone would grab a hold of the steering wheel and point the plot in a different direction, but like someone watching a car heading for a brick wall I found myself unable to look away.
I wouldn't rush out to buy this book but if you see it on a 3 for 2 table at Waterstones then grab a copy. It's available from 17th July 2008.
Mark McNay was born in 1965 and brought up in a mining village in central Scotland. After a failed electrical engineering course and fifteen years doing odd jobs, Mark joined the UEA creative writing course in 1999. He graduated in 2003 with distinction. In 2007 he won the Arts Foundation prize for New Fiction for Fresh.