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Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Under Control

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.
           Yes please.
           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.
           Charlie nodded.
           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.
           He shrugged.
           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.


Jena Isle said...

The language is indeed ... but I guess that's "real" conversation in some parts of the globe?

I'm not trying to be smart or something, but there was one article I read that says writers have also a moral responsibility towards their readers -even with the language used. (Is this grammatically corect Jim?)

Having you wanting to buy it however, speaks of the good content of the book. Perhaps I will have the chance to read it first before I can have a final say.

Thanks for sharing.

Jim Murdoch said...

You raise an interesting point, Jena and one I've never really thought about before. Now I have I would suggest that a writer's moral responsibility is to the truth first and foremost. In McNay's last book he presented the kind of language that is common in certain of the poorer areas of Glasgow. It was quite realistic. I used to train people like that and I know from first hand experience how they talk. This was one of the things about his new book that I found if anything a little tame. This is why when I do a review I feel it's important to let the author's characters speak for themselves. Now you know what the book is about you can make an informed decision as to whether a) the subject matter is of interest and b) if it's realistic presentation is something you are comfortable with.

Many writers have produced books that a lot of readers have had trouble coming to terms with, the Marquis de Sade jumps to mind and yet his books are still in print because there are people who want to read them. If Geoffrey Rush's presentation of him in the film Quills is to be believed, and from what little I've read about him, then de Sade was a man passionately devoted to truth, truths that a lot of people didn't want to face. The same could be said about Alfred Kinsey.

This is where reviewers do play an important part. I don't believe that an author should self-censor nor should be censored but they should be aware of the market for which the book is intended. Under Pressure is certainly not a child's book on many levels. There has been a bit of a fuss in the UK recently about grading childrens books in the same way that films are graded. Personally I have no problem with that as a general guide as long as no one tries to enforce it.

This is an interesting issue and one I may well come back to and discuss in more detail in the future.

The Insane Writer said...

I would hate having to jump to from character to character just to follow along.

Jim Murdoch said...

Maybe I made it sounds worse than what it is but jumping from character to character isn't bad. They have large scenes to themselves and there are breaks before and after so you know when you're switching location / character.

Ani Smith said...

Jim, kindly stop introducing me to new (to me) books I want to rush out and buy immediately. If I had actual shelves in which to store my books, they'd be full to bursting already. Thank you. ;)

Jim Murdoch said...

I do apologise, Ani. I'll try and make my reviews not quite so enticing in the future.

Dave King said...

I feel a bit like ani smith. I am probably a million miles out, but to me it sounds a bit like a Murakami (whom I rate), but with a model of the human psyche replacing the magic bits. It didn't ought to work, but it probably does - if you say it does, fair enough, at least until I've read it for myself! A good review, certainly does make you want to read.

Jim Murdoch said...

I can see where you're getting that, Dave, but I'd need to tell you more and that would spoil the review.

Anonymous said...

I have no problem with novels, plays, film scripts, poems ladling out the 'bad' language where and when contextually appropriate. (And isn't there a rich and long-running debate due on why we tolerate depictions of violence and cruelty but faint in coils over the use of 'foul' language? Go to it, Jim. Here's where it should happen!) But I've had it with drug novels, plays, films etc. In youth I read and admired greatly Burroughs' 'Junkie' and Nelson Algren's 'The Man With The Golden Arm' and I'm not unacquainted with recreational narcotics. But I hated 'Trainspotting' and fall into a deep dreamless slumber during films steeped in drug culture references. Where else is there to go with it all? What else is there to be said? What further illumination can be provided?

That having been said, I was very taken with the Pinteresque piece of dialogue quoted. Now, there's a writer who can turn a pretty profanity.

Sorry, Jim - all a bit of unfocussed rant...

Dave King said...

Exactly, as I thought... great minds and all that!

Jim Murdoch said...

As rants go, Dick, I thought it was all quite reasonable. American TV is probably one of the worst offenders. I quite often watch Criminal Minds where they often depict the most appalling acts of violence against people and there's hardly ever as much as a 'bloody' in the show. I don't get it. I don't swear – I've mentioned this before – but my characters often do, if it's appropriate.

My problem with the world McNay is presenting in this book is that I don't have any experience of drugs. I was the very opposite to the many writers who thought drugs might enhance their writing – I was terrified I might do something to my brain that might stop me writing. I've also read very little about drugs, Philip K. Dick excepted. It's not a subject that interests me. There will be many out there like me who have not read the classics you list and so the question is, is this book a good place to start? I don't think it is. The book is less of an exploration of drug culture than you might expect. They just happen to be addicts and I think McNay, not unreasonably, is assuming that all he needs is to pencil in this fact and his readers will fill in the colours by themselves. And some will. But this is why I compared the book to a film with a 15 rating because it isn't nearly as graphic as it could be. It's more interested in the people that what they've become apart from being addicts.

And you're spot on about the Pinteresque dialogue. I should've noticed that.

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