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?

Photo: Barry Lewis / Alamy
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Special Brew with George

My time in the gutter taught me how much the homeless deserve our compassion.

George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint across the road from Stockwell Tube station. Sometimes you’ll see other people begging there, but mostly this is George’s pitch. He’s a wizened man with the weathered-walnut complexion of the long-term street sleeper and addict-alcoholic. George is small and very thin and has hardly any teeth; I rather like him.

His backstory will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an interest in the homeless: his father a drug addict who died young; his mother an alcoholic who couldn’t cope. George and his sister were in and out of care throughout their early childhood and then vanished into the system.

I haven’t been able to get from George a straight account of the events that precipitated him into a gutter near me, but that is not surprising: alcoholics are usually pretty resentful people, and because they are so ill-used by their malady it is difficult for them to distinguish between the world’s bemerding and the shit they’ve got themselves into. George speaks of a young daughter’s untimely death and an estranged wife. Once he had both a home of his own and a decent trade – plastering – but now he gets plastered to forget about everything he’s lost.

I first began chatting to George in the autumn – chatting to him and giving him a pound or two. He’s good at begging, George: he keeps eye contact and speaks politely while maintaining an unthreatening demeanour. But anyway, I give money to homeless beggars: that’s my thing. I never ended up on the street myself, but 20 years of drug addiction will lead you down some crooked and filthy alleyways of human experience. I’ve begged for money in the street and got high with the homeless enough times not to shy away instinctively from their lowly estate. From time to time I’ll join them on their cardboard palliasses and take a swig of Special Brew.

Thomas Hobbes averred that charity exists solely in order to relieve the rich man of the burden of his conscience, but I’ve no wish to be so eased: I welcome the burden of my conscience, because it keeps my eyes down on the ground, where they are more likely to spot the Georges of this world, who are as deserving of our compassion as anyone.

I don’t consider giving money to homeless beggars to be an act of charity. I view it more as a redistribution of the tokens required for food, shelter and the warming overcoat of intoxication. I also prefer to give my money directly to people who need it, rather than having this act gussied up as something “fun” for me, or as a means of providing wealthy young people with ­careers in the charitable sector that give them a good conscience. Hence George and his predecessors – because usually, at any given time, I have a redistributive relationship with someone of his ilk.

The Big Issue vendors now wear fluorescent tabards that proclaim “A hand-up not a handout”, and of course I appreciate that many concerned people are working flat out trying to get the homeless off the streets and socially reintegrated; but as the years have passed, and all sorts of welfare provision have been pruned and cut and pruned some more, so the position of the Georges of this world – slumped beneath the vomitous cashpoints like so many personifications of the rising Gini coefficient – has come to seem altogether intractable.

***

As the winter nights drew in, I got to know George better, and as a consequence began giving him more money. After all, it may be easy to leave nameless hordes lying in the streets on frigid nights, but not people you actually know. If he was too obviously on the lash I’d proffer only a fiver or a tenner. Not because I’m judgemental, though – far from it. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a tenner on booze or a bag of smack if you’re on the streets; it’s just that if George is bingeing he starts spinning yarns to hook in more drug money, and nobody likes being taken for a mug. However, if he was staying sober and going to AA meetings I’d dob George £15 for a night in a backpackers’ hostel.

Like many of the homeless, George avoids the free hostels, which can be veritable cesspits of abuse; he thinks he’s better off sleeping out, which may be true some of the time, but not in the cold and wet, because people die out there, they really do. The outreach workers do the rounds of our cities’ parks and wastelands every morning in the winter, shaking the figures bundled up in sleeping bags to check they’re still breathing.

At my instigation George got back in touch with the local authority’s services, because, along with the Big Issue’s hand-up, the only way for a street-sleeping alcoholic to clamber out of the gutter is for him to re-enter the system.

I live only three hundred yards from George’s pitch, and his bash (the rough sleepers’ term for an improvised shelter)is equidistant. On one faintly delirious occasion in December I was standing on the first-floor walkway of the former council block my flat’s in, talking to my Labour councillor about an unrelated local matter, when George crawled out from a concrete cranny off the courtyard below, where he had evidently spent the night. I observed to Councillor Bigham that we really should be doing more for the likes of George, and he agreed.

However, to me, George’s situation had begun to seem not so much a failure in social provision as a cosmic solecism. Since the resurgence of so-called Victorian values under the Thatcher regime, it’s become de rigueur to regard poverty as epithetic rather than environmental. The undeserving poor, it seems, are now all around us, victims of little besides their own bad character. But my feeling is that once a man or a woman is caught in the Kafka-like trap of homelessness, all bets are off: without a house you can’t get a job; without a job you certainly can’t get a house, and actually, it’s pretty bloody hard to get one even if you do have a job; of which more later.

A few days before Christmas George had a fit as a result of alcohol withdrawal and ended up in the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital for three nights. As soon as he was well enough to walk, he was pointed in the direction of the door. Then came some encouraging news: the local authority’s rough sleepers’ team had managed to secure George an inpatient detox. He’d have to wait a few weeks, but this time, after patching him up, they would also secure him some form of temporary accommodation, and then he’d have at least a hand on the ladder back into ordinary society. An ordinary society in which the bailiffs were already waiting for George with a view to collecting £4,000 in unpaid debts – because nowadays, no matter how stony broke someone is, the presumption remains that there’s blood to be squeezed from them.

On the day he went into the rehab facility I breathed a sigh of relief – but that evening I spotted the bowed and Buddhistic figure back under the cashpoint. Within hours of being admitted, George had got into a scrap with another client and been discharged, with the rider that he was not to be admitted to any London detox facility.

The good news is that today George does have another place secured at a facility; but now he’ll be heading to the West Country for a full three months of rehab – if, that is, he can hold out for another three weeks on the streets of Lambeth. This week, with my assistance, he’s gone to visit his sister in Liverpool – another child of the oxymoronic “care system” who, unsurprisingly, seems to have all the same issues as George, with this exception: she is at least housed. Why? Because she has a child, although, if George’s account is to be believed, she has some difficulties in looking after him. I get the impression that drink is often taken.

***

What does the sorry – and, some might say, drab – tale of George tell us? That the housing crisis in Britain is intractable seems a given, so long as planning policy is rigged, in effect, in favour of unscrupulous developers and the bourgeois buy-to-let bandits. The rising tide of neoliberalism in the past quarter-century (which I can’t help visualising as a vomitous tsunami coursing along London’s gutters) has had this psychic sequel: individuals no longer connect their dream of home ownership with anyone else’s.

We Britons are once-and-future Mr Wemmicks, firing our toy guns from our suburban battlements at anyone who dares to do anything in our backyards aimed at improving the commonwealth. Dickens wasn’t just the creator of the nimby avant la lettre; he also understood George’s predicament. In his celebrated long essay Night Walks, he describes a condition he terms “the Dry Rot in men”: a progressive deterioration in capabilities that leads inexorably to “houselessness” or the debtors’ prison. These are the Victorian values that contemporary Britain still vigorously upholds; yet it need not have been this way.

Reading The Autonomous City: a History of Urban Squatting, a new book by Alexander Vasudevan, put me back in touch with my youth during the 1970s and early 1980s, when to go equipped with a crowbar and a screwdriver in order to “open” a squat was regarded as the righteous contemporary equivalent of the Paris Commune or Mao’s Long March. The role of squatting in uniting those intent on pursuing what were then deemed “alternative lifestyles” (being gay, non-white or – gasp! – a feminist) with established working-class agitations for improved housing conditions was due for appraisal; Vasudevan observes that remarkably little has been published on the subject, but he makes good the deficiency with his carefully researched and discursive study.

Squatting has a long history – you could go back as far as Gerrard Winstanley and his 17th-century Diggers – but it is worth remembering that in the London of the mid-1970s there were at least 50,000 squatters and probably a great deal more. The squats could be terrifying and anarchic places; I remember them well. But they were also often havens for women and children fleeing domestic abuse and places where people afflicted with the Dickensian ‘‘Dry Rot’’ could at least find shelter. Moreover, as Vasudevan amply demonstrates, the squats were cynosures for experiments in autonomous living: hence the book’s title.

Squatting provided a buffer zone between the realm of commoditised place and space and utter houselessness, but over the past forty years this has been progressively encroached on, as squatters either made their peace with local authorities and were offered tenancies of one kind or another, or faced, in effect, criminalisation. A series of punitive measures, beginning in the 1970s, culminated in a law being passed in 2012 that for the first time made it an offence to squat in a residential building in the UK.

In This Is London: Life and Death in the World City, published last year, Ben Judah painted a compelling picture of the human crumbs being brushed from the stony skirts of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street: with nowhere to squat any longer and space at a premium as never before, London’s houseless are being driven on to the streets, while migrant workers from eastern Europe “hot-bed” in Zone 5 dosshouses. Meanwhile I sit typing this in my one-bedroom ex-council flat, which I rent for the princely sum of £1,350 per month.

On my return to London from university in 1982, I – a single man, no less – was offered a council flat. Granted, this was on the old Greater London Council “mobility scheme”, which aimed to match not particularly deserving tenants with substandard housing stock, but there it was: an actual flat in a 22-storey, system-built block in Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs. The rent, as far as I can recall, was about £40 a month.

Now George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint opposite Stockwell Tube, while my Cubitt Town flat is long gone, demolished to make way for the burgeoning Canary Wharf development and the multi­national financial services companies it now houses. Space and place have become so comprehensively monetised in contemporary London that a begging pitch can acquire a rental value.

I have never asked George if he pays for his pitch; I do hope not, because shortly before heading off to Liverpool he told me he had been served with an antisocial behaviour order, banning him from going within 200 metres of the cashpoint. I couldn’t make it up – and I’ve been publishing fiction for nigh on thirty years. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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