Made in Chelsea is totes postmodern

What is the point of it all, it seems to ask. Why was this even made?

There's a certain uneasy, shifting quality at the centre of Made in Chelsea that reminds one of the later work of Samuel Beckett.

Like last season when Hugo cheated on Millie with Rosie, and we totally hated Rosie, and then in the last episode it turned out that it had happened before Hugo and Millie were even properly together, so it wasn’t Rosie’s fault at all. Now we like Rosie again. It’s like, what even is the truth?

And as characters wax and wane, struggling against the imposed narrative, story-arcs change course, pleating and reforming around them like so many unsuitable bikinis in a hot tub. Last season, for example, Spencer was ok; this season, Spencer is a dick.

And throughout, the series plays with themes of silence and repetition - taking a figure of speech, toying with it, manipulating it, interrogating it, and finally, killing it. “Someone I used to have familial relationships with”says Spencer, of the girl he slept with whilst going out with Louise. “He did it to shoot me in the foot” says Spencer, of the friend who ratted him out. The word "offensive", too. You can't really use that any more, not since Spencer used it. And "totes". "Totes" is completely over.

But the postmodern roots go deeper. Often, characters will step from the very frame of the plot to talk to Heat magazine, or do photoshoots for FHM. We are, they seem to insist, truly in a twilight world, where things are never quite what they seem. Who is the mysterious "Professor Green", for example, and why are there so many, many drawing rooms? Posh shoe-shops, too, are an odd but ever present visual motif. Stamped, as it were, into the viewer’s consciousness, forever.

Stalked by meaninglessness and despair, Made in Chelsea’s characters plead for release, picking at the very roots of what it means to be human. "You are so misunderstood" Binky says to Lucy in episode 3 season 4. "I know" she replies "I'm like not a robot?"

But under these themes resound deeper metaphysical questions, always left unanswered. What is the point of it all? Who are these people? Why was this even made?

Francis fairly fit though. Totes would.

Millie Mackintosh, Made in Chelsea star. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

Photo: Nadav Kander
Show Hide image

Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder