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.

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage