Dead Iraqis: Selected Short Stories Of Ellis Sharp

"Please abandon your realist expectations," says a talking train in one of the stories collected here. Ellis Sharp demands that we set aside a whole set of expectations, not only about realism, but also about political fiction and English literature. The techniques that Sharp employs in these stories -- jump-cuts between different ontological spaces, words becoming worlds, facts bleeding into fictions -- are familiar enough from postmodernist fiction. What makes Sharp unique is his application of these to British politics. The closest comparison that leaps to mind is Iain Sinclair -- Sharp has something of the same feel for English place -- yet Sharp's writing has none of the opaque hermeticism of Sinclair's. Even at its most playful, its least constrained by narrative, its most densely allusive, Sharp's writing has an openness, a lightness and a lucidity that Sinclair's work often lacks.

Dead Iraqis collects short stories that Sharp wrote between 1991 and 1999. At one level, Dead Iraqis can be read as a phantasmagoric alternative history of postwar England. It begins with a story in which the narrator -- an unborn child -- refuses to leave the womb for the whole duration of the Atlee government. The next story, "Dobson's Zone", follows the decline of Sixties radicalism into disillusion -- "Lyotard and Baudrillard, post-Fordism, the world made safe for Nietszsche and NATO". "The Bloating Of Nellcock", meanwhile, is a ferocious broadside against Neil Kinnock: Sharp takes literally the former Labour leader's image as a "windbag", transforming him into a grotesquely inflated homunculus.

The title story, written in a similar spirit of Swiftian satiric savagery, is like a literary equivalent of Martha Rosler's photograpic collages, Bringing the War Home. Like Rosler, Sharp juxtaposes atrocity and death with scenes of domesticity. Rather than being kept at a safe distance, the "dead Iraqis" from the first Gulf War are dumped on English lawns, but they prompt neither horror nor outrage from the British public. They become instead a waste disposal problem, one more thing for homeowners to complain to the authorities about:

I rang the Town Hall and asked for the Dead Iraqi Disposal Officer ... She wanted to know how many dead Iraqis were in our garden.

At that point I am sorry to say I became petulant. How was I supposed to know how many dead Iraqis were in the garden? You know how it is with dead Iraqis -- they are almost always papery and fused together. It is like someone emptying two hundred packets of crisps in your garden and asking you how many individual crisps there are.

Sharp uses the same technique, but in reverse, in the later story "The Henry James Seminar At My Lai": here, the genteel and refined world of literary scholarship finds itself pitched into the middle of a battlefield.

In his informative introduction, Macdonald Daly (who some suspect is none other than Sharp himself -- a conjecture that the ontological spirals of Sharp's fiction was bound to inspire) maintains that Sharp was at "the height of his confidence and consistency" at the time of his 1995 collection, Engels On Video. I must respectfully disagree with Daly on this point. The two stories from that book collected here -- "An Interview With Nietzsche's Moustache" and "A Maze, A Muse, A Mule" -- strike me as both over-indulgent and exhausted (and exhausting). The conceits -- an expedition through a Nietzsche's moustache hyperbolically-inflated so it becomes a whole landscape; Engels meeting Janis Joplin and Nico -- are not strong enough to hold together Sharp's teeming gaggle of tropes, jokes, speculations and leaps between worlds.

Sharp's stories work best when there is a logic -- not a traditional narrative logic, but a logic of association and correspondence -- motivating his juxtapositions. This is emphatically the case in Sharp's masterly 1992 story "The Hay Wain", in which the serenity of Constable's supposedly timeless painting is violently disrupted by proletarian rebellion. In "The Hay Wain", English culture and history become a repeating labyrinth where the rebels are always on the run from the forces of power and privilege. Fleeing Peterloo, Jack Frake eventually stumbles into the Suffolk scene Constable is painting; meanwhile, in 1990, a Poll Tax rioter takes refuge in the National Gallery and "notices what he has never noticed before on biscuit tins or calendars, or plastic trays on the walls of his aunt's flat in Bradford, those tiny figures bending in the field beyond."

Sharp replaces the dominant pastoral image of the English countryside, not with a deflated quotidian realism, but with a different kind of lyricism, one coloured by revolt: fields and ditches become hiding places or battlegrounds; landscapes that on the surface seem tranquil still reverberate with the unavented spectral rage of murdered working class martyrs. It is not the sunlit English afternoon that is "timeless", but the ability of the agents of reaction to escape justice. When the Poll tax rioter is clubbed by police and his blood starts to stain Constable's emblem of English nationhood, we're uncomfortably reminded of more recent episodes. "He was resisting arrest, right? Right mates? (Right, Sarge.) ... We used minimal force, right? ... Don't piss yourself and we'll see this thing through together, right mates? ... Everyone'll be on our side, remember that. The commisioner. The Federation. The papers. And, if it comes to it, the Coroner. Now fucking go and call for an ambulance."

Mark Fisher is the author of "Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?" (Zero Books, £7.99)
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