Book Review: Early Riser

After the heft of Ali Smith’s Spring, I turned for a bit of light relief to the sizable wit and immense imagination, not to say comic realisation, of Jasper Fforde, whose 14th novel, Early Riser, was published in the UK last year.

Early Riser is set in an alternative universe Wales, around Talgarth in fact, in which climate change has rendered the winters so cold that most – though crucially not all – humans have evolved to hibernate in vast dormitoria, the UK has collapsed, society is divided into haves and have nots and is based on the exploitation of a slave class, and in which the rule of the gun, and nature’s own cruelty, dispenses summary justice.

I’m not joking.

Emerging from a two-year creative hiatus – his period of scribernation – stemming from an extended period of writer’s ‘textual jam’, this is an entirely stand-alone (almost post-Ffordist) novel but one whose themes and styles will be familiar to those used to Fforde’s style and approach. Thus, there are extended use of humorous footnotes and brief paragraphs quoting from established – but entirely fictitious – reference ‘texts’; the website and the novel’s endpages feature additional material designed to entrench the reality of world which Fforde is creating; there are in-jokes, including a self-deprecatory one referencing his own writer’s block; there is curiously odd, stilted dialogue in which the characters visually look askance at one another as well as dialogue which creates deliberate pathos in service of the characterisation; there are deus ex machinae galore; the patriarchal world is turned upside down with strong women characters and references to a feminised society; the world turned upside down encompasses the advised, and government-backed, requirement for people to lay down fat reserves before falling asleep in hibernation; and there is a certain, and clearly intended, mystery about the gender identity of the lead character. The whole is written with such wit and such panache that the reader can’t help but be caught up in the self-conscious creation of an alternative universe, clearly to be held up as a mirror against our own, to which Fforde is absolutely committed.

At the same time, we have many evident contemporary socio-political references on top of a timecale that is, deliberately and joyously, both imprecise and of all time: the Wales in which the characters move features (unseen) mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers; it neighbours an ‘Albion’ of dubious cultural value and contribution; transport is by train on pre-Beeching routes; there are feared ‘villains’ drawn humorously from English Edwardian upper-classes; and there are frequent references to sweet treats of the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, there are numerous contemporary references: the monetary currency in Wales is the euro; the UK has clearly dissolved into an independent Wales (in which everyone speaks Welsh), a loosely-formed ‘Albion’ and references to a Northern Fed which may or may not encompass an independent Scotland; there is sly commentary on shadowy ‘big pharma’ and the control exercised by faceless corporates determined to push the boundaries of ethics as far as and until they are found out; there is a sub-text of exploitation closely referencing modern debates on the terms and conditions of employment of peripheral workers; and the dreamscape on which the novel centres closely embodies ‘the internet’, somehow ahead of and yet behind the characters’ level of understanding, as well as the control which numerous, but hidden, others may exercise over our movements in that world. The central notion that here is a world in which its characters are, blindly and unwittingly, and apparently care-free, sleeping through a large part of their existence, and in which those ordinary people who are asleep as well as the tiny minority of those who, extraordinarily, spend their winters awoke are largely accepting of the ethos of the world they inhabit, will not be lost on contemporary readers. And, on top of all that, there is the novel’s underpinning of a weak, wholly inadequate and pathetic response to climate change in which the redundant coalfields of Wales have been set alight as a means of dealing with the catastrophe of climate change.

This is a joyful, rumbunctious allegory of a dystopian society which is barely able to acknowledge that it has gone somehow, disastrously, wrong but in which the seeds of hope and of youthful endeavour (à la Greta Thunberg) may yet be able to save the day where we are able to overcome the limits of imagination we impose on ourselves. This is not unfamiliar Ffordian territory, but the theme here is darker, bleaker and more desperately non-human than the worlds he has created in his novels hitherto. The body count is high, weapons are high-tech and absolutely terminal, and there is a disregard for human life symptomatic of a society which has inflated corporate values and sloganeering, and the winner-take-all mentality, over social cohesion, consensus and solidarity between people. The ride is somewhat rough, and there may be question marks over the exactitudes of the plot and the motivations of the characters, but those need to be put aside in a novel whose celebratory style of writing betrays precious little of the effort which authors put in to realise their own objectives. Thank goodness, instead of laborious written accounts, for verbal podcasts and interviews – the one referenced above as well as others featured on Fforde’s own Twitter.

Observers of Westminster not least this week, and of the post-Brexit world we are now starting to (re-)create, will easily recognise the world which Fforde describes. The solution to the dystopian world into which we are now falling – in working the hard yards of building solidarity between people and collective identity afresh – are less easily recognised in a plot resolution which owes a little more to fantasy and to individual chance than I might have preferred; but this is a novel in which the identification of the clear avenues which have led a society into a disastrous situation is a more important process than the telling of a Tressellian tale about what needs to be done in response. That fight, instead, is up to us inhabitants of that contemporary world.

And, in the meantime, of course: #StopTheCoup

Brexit negotiations after the Vote Leave coup

Now we have sight of Boris Johnson’s letter to Donald Tusk, we have a little clearer idea about where things are heading subsequent to the Vote Leave takeover of the government after Johnson’s election as Tory leader. While the press comment has – rightly – focused on the attention given in the letter to the backstop and the issue of Northern/Ireland, the key paragraph is surely the one on p. 2 which talks about the backstop being ‘inconsistent with the UK’s desired final destination for a sustainable long-term relationship with the EU’ and, specifically, this bit:

Although we will remain committed to world-class environmental, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.

There is an easy point to score here in that not one aspect of our democracy ever put Vote Leave into Downing Street – check, for instance, the 2017 General Election which delivered a hung parliament and May’s Euro elections results in the UK. Brexit remains, as it always did, a battle for control of the Tory Party in which all of us have been caught up.

It’s also very easy to criticise the tone of the letter – in something purporting to re-open negotiations, in superficial pursuit of an expressed desire that the EU might compromise, it is clear that it very much closes them down by hardening the red lines which were already the logical conclusion to May’s botched negotiation. It has, entirely predictably, already received short shrift from the EU and presumably, this was its purpose such that the EU can be portrayed as the ‘inflexible’ enemy unwilling to compromise to secure a deal. This is evidently not a serious attempt at a re-negotiation. If further evidence was required, it’s surely there in the paragraph towards the bottom of p. 2 of the letter withdrawing from the commitment set out in the agreed Joint Report to ‘full alignment’ with the single market and customs union. Negotiation cannot sensibly proceed when one side is so publicly thumbing its nose at agreed commitments previously entered into.

Even so, we should note very carefully the threat implicit in the paragraph quite above – that, unless the EU gives us the exit deal we want, the UK will move to a de-regulatory ‘paradise’, undercutting the EU on its environmental, product and labour standards and becoming a sort of Singapore in Europe, sitting on Europe’s offshore and acting as a haven for the sorts of dodgy interests that have given us Brexit in the first place. If that is the ‘UK’s final destination for a sustainable long-term relationship’ (whatever that tortuous expression actually means in practice) – well, I can’t recall being asked to vote on that; and neither, of course, is it at all sustainable to be seeking perpetually to drive down standards, including on labour, in a race to the bottom. (Of course and not only labour – it makes absolutely no sense to have divergent standards on the environment when global action is required to save the planet: but then, climate change denial is one of the reasons we have Brexit – and it won’t stop there until the rest of the international institutions trying to address themselves to climate change have also been undermined). In this respect, proposals for no state pension until 75 (‘Don’t retire, expire!’) is only the start.

If indeed it it not a serious attempt at re-negotiation, and that the real target of the letter is not Brussels but the domestic audience, then it does, perhaps, further signal a general election prior to 31 October.

We should also therefore note the language in the letter around ‘anti-democratic’ which is not just Dominic Cummings’s word du jour to boil the debate around the EU into a soundbite – it also symbolises the verbal oppression to which those who would be likely opponents of a UK-as-Singapore policy would be subject. We have seen this sort of language before and very recently (‘saboteurs’, ‘traitors’, enemies of the people’, ‘collaborators’) but it casts here a very wide range of likely opponents of government policy as opponents of democracy. Environmental organisations and activists, food welfare and safety NGOs, and trade unions alike – all would oppose the driving down of standards in their respective fields and all, it therefore seems, are likely to be seen in the process as undermining a project which the unelected (oh the irony!) Cummings (a figure held earlier this year, remember, to have been in contempt of Parliament) now chooses to describe as ‘central to our future democracy’. Trade unions have famously before been seen as ‘the enemy within’, and both unions and environmental organisations are no strangers to infiltration by state agents, but the febrile political atmosphere in which we find ourselves as a result of the 2016 referendum and ten years of austerity politics, amidst the continuing trashing of the UK’s domestic institutions, to which we can now add the fifth estate to the fourth, and indeed the first, casts an entirely new light on the phrase.

It’s beginning indeed to look a lot like fascism.


Book Review: Spring

Spring‘, the third in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet of novels depicting aspects of life in contemporary Britain, is as literarily clever and determined to challenge as either of its two predecessors. There’s a real sense at the end of this one that Smith is just getting into her stride with her endeavour, as indeed she’ll need to if ‘Summer’ is both to improve on this confident, magisterial and appropriately angry work as well as to tie the themes of the quartet up into a coherent, cyclical whole.

Spring, the season of new life and new beginnings – and, of course, new hope. Here we have two linked stories – a literary-inspired one featuring Richard, an ageing TV director facing up to the death of Paddy, his confidante and occasional scriptwriter; and a contemporary one featuring Brit(tany), a detainee custody officer in an immigration removal centre, and a precocious child named Florence whose powers of persuasion prompt Brit to do some detective work of her own (and in her own self-interest) following an incident which had passed into legend at her IRC. Both stories, both halves of the novel, are brought together in Kingussie, in the Scottish highlands, in which Gàidhlig and the use of language features alongside reflections on the clearances which encouraged waves of migration out of Scotland (from where refugees moved into Canada, Australia and New Zealand, among others).

Readers familiar with the series will quickly recognise the repetition of the approaches and themes that Smith has adopted in the other two novels so far: there are literary allusions to Shakespeare plays and Dickens novels, to which Smith here add some TS Eliot and some Shelley; there is again a love of Charlie Chaplin brought to the characters inhabiting each novel by one who figures in them all; there are stunning word plays (Andy Hoffnung is a TV play of Richard’s and Paddy’s about the Holocaust while an die Hoffnung (‘dedicated to hope’) is the theme uniting the two stories (vivunt spe) as well as allowing the ghost of fascism to unite the history and the contemporary); the Auld Alliance is the name not just of a B&B in Kingussie but a historic way of France and Scotland dealing with growing over-mighty English nationalism as well as the name of an essential character (while Kingussie itself is a word play); a woman artist (here, Tacita Dean) acts as a prompt for reflections on the contribution of art and artists in helping us interpret and understand our society and whose work underpins one of the themes of the novel (clouds); there is a vignette of an encounter with jobsworth officialdom in the guise of transport police (here not as comical as in the set-piece counters in the previous two volumes, and briefer, but amusing nonetheless); and there is repeated interest in the ability of outsiders to engage in word play and promote the use of language rather better than domestic characters, with an interesting comment on relationships at a time when Britain is re-examining its own relationships with Europe and the rest of the world.

The railway is both an actual thing in itself, carrying the characters to their destination, as well as a metaphor for something happening in the novel. Postcards – scenes in and out of life – are again a key prompt for the action. And, of course, the shadowy SA4A organisation again makes an appearance – here rather more overtly than hitherto since it runs the IRC in which Brittany works (and in which the corruption of her own innocence against her better nature by becoming a part of the ‘machine’) is a source of shame just as much as IRCs are themselves). Furthermore, jokey references to contemporary slogans of political life not only convey significances which drip with meaning and with acerbic, mocking humour, they also call to mind that this is Smith’s own latterday version of Dickens’s ability to write quickly, in serialisation form for immediate publication, with both acting as chronicler and social and moral critic of the injustices of the times in which they live. It is no accident that Smith draws heavily here on her own work with refugees.

This is an intelligent, confident novel, one not afraid to show its learning even if the touch is sometimes a little heavy, from one of Britain’s premier wordSmiths which shows signs of a tighter plotting than the weaknesses which somewhat marred its predecessor. Indeed, the one plot weakness here can be explained in terms of the novel’s recurring theme of hope: that the hope of a moment’s reconciliation can prompt the taking of apparently outlandish risks. Furthermore, the anger at what British society is allowing itself to become – at the frog failing to notice the steady increase in the temperature of the water in which it believes it is swimming while actually it is being cooked – is here conveyed in soliloquies which are more direct, more acute and (even) more passionate than before.

Smith’s over-riding theme in this series, aided by the non-linear approach to her narratives, is the circularity of all things – that, just as much as seasons come and go, and the natural world is prompted by the passing of time, the politics of human existence sees both familiarity and renewal in the repetition of events. There are not necessarily happy endings but, with each fresh awakening ought to come a more ‘woke’ experience alongside, it is to be hoped, a little more learning and a little more ability to be a little cleverer than before as each cycle comes round again in which we need to recognise what we can learn from older people while passing the baton to the young, the precocious, the dynamic and the idealistic.

In the meantime, roll on Summer.