Eustace

A strong debut with a compelling style somehow fails to nail the pacing.

Eustace
S.J. Harris
Jonathan Cape, 280pp, £14.99

Eight-year-old Eustace is a very sickly boy. Confined to bed through some unknown malady, he whiles his life away dreading the thin reedy soup (the only thing he can keep down); avoiding the affections of his innumerable aunts; and chatting to us, his imaginary strangers. He used to have imaginary friends, but then they were mean to him in the park, so he stopped speaking to them.

Were the struggle to just survive not such an occupation, the oddities of his life would give him much to tell us about. One day, Eustace's brother, Frank, joined the army to meet men — which, in 1936, is a relatively ballsy thing to do — causing his mother to go into a near-terminal decline. She gave the servants the day off, and went to bed, leaving no-one to bring him any food. Quenching his hunger with narcotic cough syrup is one way to deal with that problem, but perhaps not the smartest.

Then Eustace's uncle crawls out from under his bed, on the lam from the law. His secretary follows soon after. And then the booze and prostitutes arrive…

If it's not clear, Eustace is a strange book. The plot continues getting weirder from thereon in, and ends rather abruptly in a manner which is both the logical end-point and deeply fucked-up. A short epilogue in the form of a newspaper clipping provides the only real resolution any of the characters get, and emphasises how a book which begins as a potentially realistic story told through the heightened experience of a child goes well off in a different direction.

There is a clue from the start that odd things were going to happen though, and that's Steven Harris' artwork. One of the particular joys reading comics offers is the chance of synchronicity between artistic style and thematic elements, and Harris offers that in abundance. Rendered, as best I can tell, entirely in pencil and with copious amounts of white space marking Eustace's fitful drifts into and out of sleep, the most immediately noticeable aspect of Harris' style is his figure work.

Eustace looks thin, wan and sickly; his eyes are sunken deep into his head; his straw-like blond hair is combed-over in a way which suggests premature baldness. But the thing is, those are traits he shares with all Harris' figures. Even the big, boisterous Uncle Lucian, who crawls out from under Eustace's bed and turns his life upside down, has the same cutting cheekbones and thin lips.

While the similarity starts off as a distraction, it soon becomes clear that Harris' intentions are more subtle. The similarity between Eustace and "Oubliette", the first of many prostitutes who ends up in his room, becomes a minor plot point, while Frank and Eustace's mother's appearances aren't exactly supposed to make them look hale and hearty either.

Similarly, a minor confusion at the start concerning Eustace's asides to the reader is inverted quite wonderfully as it becomes clear that they are less aside than we think — and raise further questions about the poor boy's health.

But it does all come back to that odd narrative. Weirdness is good, but when it extends to the pacing, which it does here, it's less commendable. The whole structure of the book is someone with their foot on the accelerator of a clapped-out car pointed straight at a wall. It very slowly builds steam, eventually reaches a viable cruising speed, but then never quite slows down, and, eventually and suddenly, stops, causing pain for all concerned.

It's not the first time that's happened to Eustace, either. The story has its roots in a comic Harris did on the BBC's h2g2 website (a sort of proto-wikipedia based on the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy which ended up being more of a weirdly-laid-out forum where a lot of the first wave of Britain's online creatives congregated) which was itself suspended abruptly after six months. Harris' other cartoon series, Paper Cuts, lasted over two years, and he returned to the site to pencil a further three last spring.

In a way, then, the book has been a decade in the making. Given the level of craft evident from a nominally first-time graphic novelist, that's not something which will surprise you by the time you finish it. But the finish itself may be less to your taste.

Images: S.J. Harris/Jonathan Cape

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism