Warning: This review alludes to the novel’s ending.
London life, for the benefit of those of you currently rotting in the provinces, is characterised by a cultural schism, namely the multicultural experience as understood by immigrant families and their indigenous offspring, and the melting pot as experienced and imagined by the white middle class. Guy Gunaratne’s novel, longlisted for the Booker Prize, ventriloquizes the former for the education of the latter. It’s conceived as a series of vignettes, a buffet of voices if you will, that dovetail toward the same race riot climax, describing rising racial tensions and the looming spectre of violence around a Neasden council estate, following the murder of a British soldier. It’s a novel informed, maybe haunted by memories of Lee Rigby and the London Riots.
For the reader there’s the tension between races and ideologies, namely Islam and Christianity, radical Islam and secularism, radical Islam and artistic self-expression – namely the Grime music scene, Gunaratne’s prism of choice. But there’s also an ontological tension, namely that between the reflective author and his characters, who mediate their understanding via streams of consciousness, intermixed with an identity forging memory or two.
For this to be a credible representation of the minority experience in the poorer parts of what the author conceives as a Metropolis on the brink; a city ridden by tribalism and mistrust; there has to be a kind of plastic authenticity – characters that talk in a reductive way – a generationally transmitted mix of patois and provincialism. They speak this way when addressing other characters, but narrate their own internal thoughts with poetic, authorial vitality, dodging clichés, as non-writers seldom do.
Are people better noticers than they let on? Perhaps. Don’t we naturally reflect more when talking to others? Possibly. This is why dialogue can do a lot of work when establishing the psychological makeup of a character. But here it’s talk of smashing the local gash in public, while the same character’s literary consciousness describes the ejaculatory climax to a blowjob thus: “she’s no longer a girl but a numb mouth and easy end”. Who amongst us hasn’t thought exactly this when coming in a woman’s mouth?
These characters, be they first generation immigrants reflecting on the eerie parallels between their early experiences of London life and the ugly tensions erupting around them in the present day, or their offspring, who rather than fulfilling the promise of naturalisation, have succumb to a form of pronounced internecine identity politics; an outlook that’s kept them both separated and alienated; a kind of defensive, closeted, pseudo-national identity. Neither one thing or another. Is that what the author means in his closing remarks, delivered from an otherworldly plane with the authority of omniscience, by “we let ourselves be beaten”? The question for the reader is, by what? Bigotry, or the burden of assimilation?
Gunaratne’s characters pity the imagined one size fits all, monoglot, cultural homogeneity of the local white population, represented here by effete public school boys. In short, the author has a soft contempt for the ignorant white middle class reader, who, if they’re minded to read his novel at all, may write it off as the reminiscences of dull characters with drab lives living on a shitty council estate, hamstrung by a lack of civility, and conditioned by a violent inheritance – albeit one forged in the shadow of perceived colonial attitudes and social injustice.
Not for nothing are street poets Ardan and runner Selvon the kids of first generation race rioters and late of a sectarian, catholic Belfast IRA household. Perhaps if In our Mad and Furious City has a message, it’s that in order for there to be peaceful coexistence, one must first break from the shackles of the past and embrace a collective future. But one is left wondering how this can be achieved when so many of us are prisoners of our inherited identity and its political antecedents.
One can forgive the author for lapses, and does – symptoms of late John Updike syndrome, where his voice intrudes on that of the character. It’s possible to be intrigued by this book while still being irritated by the insta-philosophy on display, peppered with the occasional “ennet” and “fucken”, designed to remind us that these are indeed authentic working class characters. The novel made the Booker longlist because it attempts to give voice to a group of people and a perspective that you won’t hear being talked about off the Northcote Road.
This is not a portrait of a city then, just one half of it, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that it’s there, even if the author fails to make the case for visiting anytime soon. It has value as an anthropological investigation and account of one of London’s ignored nooks. But some might mark it significant that the only answers Gunaratne can provide to the problems he explores are delivered from the grave, spiritually sanctified, as real solutions to social problems never can be. It’s a curiously whimsical end to an otherwise grounded story.