Carnival by Rawi Hage and Ballistics by D W Wilson: Dashboard existentialists

Two Canadian novelists stretch and expand the fictional geography of their native land in their new books.

The novelist Rawi Hage has a socio-political vision that he expresses realistically and also in symbolic terms. His fiction drops the reader into a space where abstractions take on solid form and allegory coexists with the allegorised – as if George Orwell had created a human community to accompany the animal one that represents it. The author of a novel set in his native Beirut, De Niro’s Game (an allusion, by way of The Deer Hunter, to Russian roulette), and another set in his adopted home of Montreal, Cockroach (immigrant life through a Kafka-tinted lens), Hage has opted this time for an imaginary setting, an English-speaking city that hosts a large annual carnival. But rather than him having, for instance, a carnival standing in for a multi-ethnic melting pot, we get both sides of the equation. The narrator, Fly, explains: “There is no better place for an exile to hide . . . than among a horde of humans in masks re-enacting the periodic cycles of life and death.” It’s a burst of clarity on an already clear topic, delivered towards the end of a novel that feels louchely opaque and guarded about its intentions.
 
Perhaps as a joke, Hage has given his loose narrative a formal architecture. The curtainraising announcement of Act I is followed by these opening words: “I was conceived on the circus trail by a traveller who owned a camel and a mother who swung from the ropes” – though what follows could be nobody’s idea of a confession or apologia. Instead, the book flits between slice-of-life impressions and a sense of crisis. A plot of sorts materialises from nowhere at the end of Act II and then disappears for most of Act III, before returning in a rush of incident as extreme as the earlier digressive casualness.
 
Hage’s prose is stark in tone but verbally busy, importing imagery from every direction and discipline. Named after the class of taxi driver to which he belongs (“flies” roam the streets where “spiders” wait to be des - patched), the narrator refers to the taxi he drives as “my boat”, “my airplane”, “my home” and “my library” and sees the people around him in terms both nationalistic (a Turkish receptionist is easy to bribe because that’s how things went in the Ottoman empire) and atavistic (Fly’s customers are “owls” and “hyenas” and “nocturnal apes”; human beings are “talking apes”). Numerous vocabularies angle to impose an underestablished significance. The result is about as bleak as fiction can get and still be whimsical.
 
Except for the occasional unexpected visit from a beleaguered friend, Fly’s social life is confined to café chit-chat – this is heightened reality with more than its share of the mundane – and his only ritual is masturbating daily to historical visions in which he prevents the occurrence of some genocidal or imperial atrocity. Until he gets involved in low-level crime (and then without relish), he is in essence a pair of eyeballs on wheels – eyeballs unusually given to glazing over with boredom and popping with anger and contempt. The city’s topography is blandly nonspecific (“Main Street”, “the highway”, “the market”, “the bridge”) and Fly’s picture of urban unease trades not in capitalised nouns or landmarks you can put into Google but in artfully flattened stereotypes of recognisable phenomena. At a hospital, he comes upon “a faint chaos . . . of doctors disguised in aprons, pointing magic wands at nurses in angelic uniforms and muffled tap shoes, waving bandages mistaken for egg rolls”. Out on the road, he notes “the parade of teenage boys driving with hands that dangle in the manner of caged animals, their menacing eyes scouring the long thighs above spiked heels”. Men who work out are “inflated balloons with broken cords, always walking as if they are taking their first step on the moon”. These are tickling comic formulae but it is hard to det - ermine their implications for Hage’s project.
 
On the whole, Hage does without any form of governing logic, but an undertone becomes steadily more audible: the superiority of secular knowledge to nationalist and religious dogma. Despite holding to a teenager’s vision of utopia (a beach with ball games and women in bikinis), Fly is a salivating autodidact with a frame of reference ranging from Alexander to Zorro, and his flat is crammed with works of literature and history, organised according to some variant on the Dewey Decimal system that gives a prominent role to “the colour” of a book’s “skies” and “the circumference of their authors’ heads”. Pursuing a remote and calculatedly anonymous existence, uncoopted by any clan identity beyond that of “fly”, he is devoted only to his “arsenal of books”, the majority of which come from the wild-man, dissident and post-colonial traditions from which Hage also claims descent.
 
About 50 pages after the book starts rem - inding you of Bohumil Hrabal – that is, at around page 50 – Fly reads a passage from Too Loud a Solitude, Hrabal’s spirited novel about his experiences compacting waste. It is a precedent that perhaps explains this book’s dazing fidelity to a series of vignettes which, lacking a thread, slips too easily from the mind. Hage used to drive a taxi and the book presents a trove of impressions similar to those unleashed by Hrabal in his book, in which the writer evokes with as much irate energy and deranged pathos as he can recover (though in this case not quite enough) the shaggy underdog’s existence from which writing has helped him to escape.
 
One of the services literature provides is a kind of armchair tourism and Hage has introduced readers to a place – a magical-realist Montreal – that we haven’t seen before. No better-known to most readers of fiction are the towns of eastern British Columbia overlovingly surveyed by the 27-year-old D W Wilson in his first novel, the flinty comingof- age story Ballistics, a follow-up to his story collection, Once You Break a Knuckle. Like Hage, Wilson employs a central metaphor that leads a double life, “ballistics” referring both to causation in a family’s history and to the gunshots that played a causal role. “How it all began – that’s a good question . . . It’s like asking when a bullet starts toward the beer can,” explains Alan, a philosophy student who leaves his spiralling thesis and no less tameable girlfriend back in Toronto to spend the summer in the Kootenay Valley, where he was born. Alan sees himself as the endpoint of a knock-on process and the composition of his personality is traced in a sustained piece of “primal self-cataloguing” that draws on an appropriately broad range of factors, the lifestyle prevalent in his home town, Invermere, accounting only for why he can “handle a firearm and drive stick”.
 
After the grandfather who raised him has a heart attack, Alan drives west into a fire engulfing the Canadian Rockies to find, at Gramps’s behest, the father he never knew. On his way, he encounters (also for the first time) his other grandfather, Archer, who met Gramps back when he was just Cecil, after he discovered Archer on his land and shot him in the leg. They became friends, unofficial relatives in a ramshackle extended family (Archer’s daughter, Linnea, got involved with Cecil’s son, Jack) and lovers of the same woman, Nora, who started as Cecil’s fiancée and ended up as Archer’s wife.
 
Once or twice, Wilson appears to get lost in the time scheme: it is odd for Alan to say that someone “studies” photography when even the period of reminiscence that the book records took place “some time ago”. Odder still – and with more serious repercussions for the reader’s pleasure – is the decision to give Archer part-time control of the narration, producing an effect as obtrusive as that of the “ballistics” metaphor. Given that Alan knows the full layout of events by the time he starts narrating, there seems to be no need to delegate the release of information to another source. Rather than being mutually enriching, the two voices get in each other’s way, sapping the book of momentum.
 
They also double up on each other, providing, over 380 closely printed pages, too full a helping of this writer’s habits. A prose style that starts off as bracing, even breathtaking – Wilson can make a simile and a verb out of pretty much anything – loses impact through lack of modulation. Wilson has a taste for such sentences as, “Maybe a person’s fate is decided more readily by the decisions they don’t make” (the italics on loan from John Irving), but description is the gift he is keenest to cultivate – rightly, though he does it to excess. A 4x4 has a “smell of Old Spice and sloshed beer”; stubble is compared to “steelwool” and hair to “sewing-thread”. Some passages seem to work their way round the senses: “It looked like the mountains had sprouted hairs. I couldn’t even smell smoke anymore . . . My teeth felt fuzz-coated . . .”
 
Though Wilson’s home turf lies about as far west of Montreal as Milton Keynes does from Tehran, Wilson has a passport in common with Hage and is eligible for the same awards (the Giller Prize, for which Hage has been twice shortlisted, is the most prestigious). It isn’t clear what unifying qualities the national literature of so diffuse, though oft-caricatured, a nation could be said to possess, and on one level the things that Wilson and Hage share are not strikingly Canadian. Writers from all over the world display, like these two, a devotion to the first person and a preference – the costs of which are clearer than the benefits – for introducing dialogue without punctuation. But perhaps the idea of being a Canadian writer is being exploited as a licence. The recourse to a method and philosophy that might be called dashboard existentialism, though tiresome when practised “south-of-the-forty-ninth” (Wilson’s word), is offered in these books without irony or apology, as if the limits of a sweaty-palmed, dewy-eyed sensibility, downbeat but capable of affirmation, could be offset by a backdrop we haven’t seen before.
 
Leo Robson is the lead fiction critic of the NS
Rawi Hage's new novel takes place in an imaginary English-speaking city which hosts an annual carnival. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

Illustration by James Albon
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The life and times of the London cycle courier

Bike messengers no longer comprise the militia they resembled when the Tories were turning London into a city of finance. But they still trail a thrillingly reckless air of romance.

It was as if I’d accidentally stumbled into some secret cell from which an insurrection was being planned. The four or five mechanics and cycle couriers loosely clustered around the counter, costumed in black clothes that seemed, impossibly, to be skinny and baggy at the same time, had an arachnid quality to them. Static crackled from the radios clipped to their shoulders on the tarpaulin courier bags that arced over their backs like a carapace. They looked like the conspirators of an anarchist revolution, rebuilding bikes from greasy cogs and oil-stained bits of metal as if they were bombs. I was almost disappointed when the one standing behind the counter proved to be cheerfully friendly. Suddenly, they looked endearingly like twentysomething Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were the heroic phase in the history of the bicycle courier. London’s roads were arteriosclerotic with traffic, so courier firms that had once despatched vans, motorbikes and scooters across the city increasingly resorted to bike messengers, who were as nimble as they were cheap. The internet hadn’t yet made them half redundant, relegating them to the role of delivering documents that ­require a signature from Soho to the City, or  conveying portable corporate gifts from the City to Mayfair.

In these years the messengers visibly became a tribe. They acquired a more uniform appearance, albeit one that accommodated individual eccentricities; they devised a dialect to lubricate radio communication between couriers and controllers; identified an unofficial headquarters, a bar in Shoreditch called the Foundry; and developed their own rituals of belonging, including the Cycle Messenger World Championships. This annual event, inaugurated in Berlin in 1993, was hosted in London in 1994, when approximately 500 couriers from Europe and the US as well as the UK attended. This is roughly the number of couriers who still fling themselves along the streets of London today, in far more embattled conditions.

It was in 1993, at the acme of the profession and its associated subculture, that the then prime minister, John Major, speaking to the Conservative Group for Europe, made an infamous prognostication about the future of Britain, in which he misused George Orwell’s reference to “hiking” from his essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” (1941). “Fifty years on from now,” Major prophesied, “Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and Pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’ . . .” In contrast to this pastoral fantasy, bike messengers seemed to herald a feral future in which, at evening rush hour, as traffic fumes thicken, the congested lanes and streets of cities are convulsed with semi-vagrant, rodent cyclists, all of them addicted to danger, competing with suicidal energy in so-called “alleycat” races.

Major’s imaginary old maids, ideologically speaking, were the sisters of those honest, industrious Englishmen whom Norman Tebbit invoked in 1981 when, as Margaret Thatcher’s employment secretary, he made his notorious claim that, instead of rioting like the current generation of unemployed, his father had “got on his bike and looked for work”. When a cycle courier got on his bike, he wasn’t looking for work, he was working. In this sense, the bike messengers out-tebbited Tebbit. Yet their untamed appearance and their countercultural attitudes aligned them with the sorts of people who relished a riot – the New Age travellers and class warriors who, in the pages of the tabloid press, threatened to stain Thatcher, Tebbit and Major’s pristine vision for Britain. At a time when cycling, in Britain’s political imagination, seemed in danger of becoming an emblematically Conservative activity, cycle couriers were fifth columnists.

Bike messengers no longer comprise the ragged but glorious militia they resembled when the Tories were assaulting London and reconstructing it as a centre of finance. They no longer look like desperadoes or mercenaries among the armies of conventional commuters that traverse the city. But they still trail a derelict charm and a thrillingly reckless air of romance as they hurtle through the streets. Indeed, in some respects, their piratical appeal has grown.

Cycle couriers have managed to survive in the city’s increasingly competitive ecology, subsisting even though a deadly combination of emails and Uber cabs threatens to render them extinct. Such is the persistent value of the autograph (as opposed to some kind of electronic fingerprint, say) that signed documents still need to be ferried from door to door; such is the capital’s ongoing road congestion (and the congestion charge) that it is still quicker to cross it on two wheels than four. Their heightened appeal, though, can perhaps be explained by the fact that they look so attractively fierce and undomesticated beside more rarefied species of cyclists that have evolved in London over the past couple of decades. Among these, the most prominent are middle-aged men in Lycra shorts on racing bikes; commuters in suits on fold-up bikes; and tourists, foreign and domestic, in chinos on bank-branded public hire bikes. (A recent addition to this list is the newest subspecies of courier, employed by the food delivery service Deliveroo. With the only job requirements being to own a bicycle and a smartphone, they can be seen in increasing numbers, huffing and puffing up mild inclines and wobbling under the weight of their giant backpack-boxes full of chow.)

The cycle courier also looks far tougher, far better adapted to the remorseless daily demands of urban life, than another, rather more populous metropolitan species: the hipster. The hipster may or may not be a cyclist: if he rides, it will most likely be a showy, courier-aping, customised “fixie” (fixed-gear) bike. But whether on wheels or on foot, with his spindly legs rigid in drainpipes instead of agile in tights and cut-off combat pants, his beard absurdly sculpted instead of attractively disordered by the force of the elements, the hipster is an ossified, etiolated, even decadent descendant of the cycle courier. In the contemporary capital’s mythological bestiary, bike messengers, their lower bodies inseparable from the sleek metal frames of the machines on which they balance, are the city’s centaurs; hipsters, its plodding satyrs. Messengers, as Emily Chappell explains in the glossary that concludes her new book about being a courier, have a portmanteau term of contempt for “urban cyclists who adopt the supposed style and attitude of cycle couriers without ever having worked as one”: “fakengers”.

Chappell’s book, What Goes Around: a London Cycle Courier’s Story (Guardian Faber), which is fascinating for offering a ­female courier’s memoir of a predominantly male culture, is one of no fewer than three to have been published by couriers or former couriers about the city’s cycle-life in the space of six months. The others are Jon Day’s Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier (Notting Hill Editions), a learned handbook on cycling that dignifies cyclists as psychogeographers; and Julian Sayarer’s Messengers: City Tales from a London Bicycle Courier (Arcadia), the most combatively political of the three.

Sayarer’s memoir drily characterises couriering as “the best of all the worst jobs in the world”. In his prologue, he describes a phone conversation in which his agent tries to persuade him to produce a manuscript “about bicycles, and the city”. When Sayarer expresses his reluctance to write another book about “punctures and brakepads” at a publisher’s insistence, the agent admonishes: “If you don’t, mark my words, they will find a name instead of yours to put on that spine!” It transpires that they could have put the names of at least three authors on the spine, all of them highly accomplished prose stylists and compelling narrators.

All three books read a little like threnodies; and it is tempting to see them as symptoms of a subculture that is becoming increasingly conscious of the need to memorialise itself precisely because it is under threat. Chappell, Day and Sayarer feel like anthropologists scrambling to record the language of a threatened tribe; they are compiling a semiotics of urban cycling in the face of its fatal transformation. As the appearance of boutique bike shops, cycle superhighways and bank-sponsored hire bikes implies, if bicycling in 21st-century London is being promoted by politicians, it is also being sanitised, rationalised and privatised.

Revealingly, in his “mayoral foreword” to a document published by Transport for London (TfL) in 2010, Boris Johnson underlined his determination to turn London into what, in a clumsy and faintly sinister portmanteau term, he called “a cyclised city” – “a civilised city where people can ride their bikes safely and easily in a pleasant environment”. Everyone wants to be able to ride their bike safely, and the vast majority of cyclists want Johnson to stop orating and instead introduce stringent legislation to prevent HGVs from killing them at traffic junctions. But not everyone who wants to cycle safely wants London to become a “pleasant environment”. I don’t; and it certainly wouldn’t still be London if it did.

***

In the civilised city of TfL’s “Cycling Revolution”, the commuters, fakengers and sightseers pedalling along the superhighways are inadvertently erasing the record of cycle couriers who pioneered them. The books by Chappell, Day and Sayarer restore the record. Each contains detailed, often vivid descriptions of, for example, the punitive physical discipline that the job demands, which quickly becomes an addiction; the jerry-rigging of equipment fatigued by the road; the encounters with blank-faced representatives of corporate offices; gatherings of the tribe at the likes of the Foundry; the run-ins with black-cab drivers; and, most gripping of all, the alleycat races.

Day recounts one particular race, designed by his brother, also a courier, to be “an urban steeplechase with a fox-hunt theme”. Attaching a fox’s tail to his belt loop and strapping a plastic container filled with liquid to his back, his brother set off through the traffic on his bike, sputtering a trail of white paint through his rear wheel. After a short time, Day himself signalled the beginning of the race with the blast of a horn. “We followed the paint that lay in a splattered line on the tarmac, competing with the other street markings and tracing a ghostly outline of my brother’s journey,” he writes with characteristic flourish.

Sayarer provides a second-hand account of the same alleycat race in his own book. Day’s brother makes an appearance under the identity used by controllers on the couriers’ radio system: “Two-Four brings me up to speed with his life and tells me about his last alleycat: the fox hunt.” Day also plays a cameo role in Chappell’s book, in the guise of the courier “who was now waiting for his DPhil viva to roll around before finally moving on to lecture in modernist fiction at King’s College”. At times it really is as if the names of all three of them appear on the spine of the same book.

Reading these absorbing accounts of bike messengers’ struggle to subsist on the roads of London, the only thing I felt was missing was a sense of the angry inner monologue that, surely, shapes their consciousness as they cycle through the relentlessly hostile traffic. For the most part, admirably, and aside from a few vituperative references to cabbies or cops, Chappell, Day and Sayarer seem “to float above the chaos and ­friction of the city with an unfailing smile” (as Chappell puts it, describing another female courier). When I cycle, I maintain a constant, resentful running commentary, at times all too audible, on the confrontational or careless drivers who threaten to knock me on to the road. It seems hard to believe that professional couriers don’t suffer from the same psychosis: cyclosis.

Matthew Beaumont is the author of “Nightwalking: a Nocturnal History of London” (Verso)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle