Party people: clubbers in Birmingham in 2012. Photo: Getty
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The nine-year bender: Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth

For a good 50 pages, I thought the promise of “Withnail with girls” might actually be realised. But when it comes to partying, in art as in life, a little goes a long way.

Animals
Emma Jane Unsworth
Canongate, 256pp, £12.99

One should never judge a book by the celebrity quotes on its cover but it was hard to resist Emma Jane Unsworth’s second novel once I saw that Caitlin Moran had called it “Withnail with girls”. I love Caitlin Moran! I love Withnail! I love girls! Sold, sold, sold.

Sure enough, I rattled through the first three chapters, chortling merrily at the wisecracks of Laura, our heroine (or anti-heroine, if you consider a heavy-duty drink-and-drug habit unsuitable for a positive role model), and her best friend, Tyler. We meet them in the aftermath of a big night on the town: “fizzy wine, flat wine, city streets, cubicles, highly experimental burlesque moves on bar stools . . .” Tyler, the Withnail of the piece, is still awake and smoking, dressed in a ratty old kimono emblazoned with her motto, “Death before defeat”.

These girls – despite being in their late twenties (Tyler) or thirties (Laura), they are definitely still girls – have spent the past nine years living together, tearing up the town, working dead-end jobs and, in Laura’s case, trying to see through the fug of stimulants in order to write a novel. Now change is looming in the form of Jim, Laura’s new fiancé, a concert pianist who has recently, to her great consternation, given up booze. Will Laura, like Withnail’s “I”, opt for a drier, more conventional life? Will she – shock, horror – go over to the “dark side” (child-rearing)? Or will Tyler convince her to carry on the party, even if it drives her into an early grave?

All the essential ingredients of a fine bohemian romp are in place: the cheerful squalor of the flat, with its grimy array of bathroom products and soiled banknotes hanging out to dry; the smart and sassy protagonists, who make you want to be in their gang (I loved Tyler baiting the local vegan hipsters who tell her off for having honey on her toast: “Bees LIKE MAKING IT. No one forces them to. Where will the madness end?”); the sexy and talented Jim, who doesn’t mind Laura’s drunkenness, incontinence or thread veins. For a good 50 pages, I thought the promise of “Withnail with girls” might actually be realised.

For the next 50, I gnashed my teeth as it all fell apart. Unsworth’s problem is that, rather like Tyler, she doesn’t know when to stop. The drunken exploits keep coming, relentlessly, and with ever-diminishing returns. There’s the night Laura wakes up with a roast chicken in her bed and the night Tyler draws on her eyebrows in permanent marker and the night they are held hostage by a drug dealer . . . All the nights blur into one long, repetitive, eventually nauseating boozeathon. By page 100, I wanted nothing more than to curl up in bed with a soothing Horlicks and for Laura and Tyler to do the same.

When it comes to recreational drugs, in art as in life, a little goes a long way. It’s fun to go on a weekend bender with Withnail – and we might even try to match him drink for drink – but we don’t want to be stuck with him or, sadly, with Tyler for nine years. That is more than long enough for a reader to see past the “fun” and through to a harder truth: drugs make people self-centred and, ultimately, pretty boring.

The thing I couldn’t quite fathom about this book is why Unsworth, who I think recognises this, just doesn’t let it stop her. She includes various strands of plot that could have given the novel more depth and range – Laura’s dad is dying of cancer, Tyler’s sister has a baby, there are hints at Laura’s burgeoning spirituality – but she skates quickly over them and on to the next night out. Cynically, perhaps, I felt that she, or her publisher, had decided that the “Girls do drugs, too!” concept would be enough to get people reading.

I don’t want to be cynical, though, because Unsworth is a bright talent. Perhaps all she needs is to find an editor who knows when to call time.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

BURAK CINGI/REDFERNS
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Only Drake could wow the O2 by pointing out random audience members' clothing

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through.

On the last London night of his Boy Meets World tour (20 March), Drake doesn’t come on stage until 10pm, which is enough to kill off most gigs at the O2 Arena (hello, Bieber), as people are worried about getting the Tube home. The amount of rum and Coke in the room – a steaming, unrecognisable space with a false ceiling of globular lights and a stampeding crowd split in half by a fence – certainly helps keep the buzz. But who’d have thought that a man standing onstage diligently pointing at audience members and saying what they’re wearing (“You in the blue dress shirt with the ­lager!”) would constitute one of the most exciting nights the O2 has seen in a while?

“Tonight is not a show, not a concert, not about me,” says Drake, who runs an annual “Drake Night” in Toronto and once visited Drake University in Iowa.

So far, the world’s favourite rapper – his latest album, More Life, recently got 90 million streams on its first day of release on Apple Music alone – has had a shifting identity. His songs capture a new strain of emotionally literate but solipsistic hip-hop, which can feel intense or whiny depending on how you look at it. His offstage behaviour is Type-A rapper – he has been accused of throwing beer bottles at Chris Brown, he has been punched by Diddy and he has had altercations with Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T and Ludacris.

But Aubrey Drake Graham, the son of a white, Jewish mother and an African-American father who once played drums alongside Jerry Lee Lewis, does skits about his petulance on Saturday Night Live (see “Drake’s Beef”). Emotionally demonstrative, openly dysfunctional, a bit of a bruiser, with an ability to flit between a dozen styles of music while expressing a desire for crowd participation that borders on the needy . . . Could this man be the ­Michael Bublé of hip-hop?

Drake’s sprawling two-hour roadshow is held back from chaos by the force of his physical presence. Blunt-headed with muscular, sloping shoulders and mesmerising, nimble feet, he prowls the edge of the stage. He has had so many hits (and has so many guest stars tonight) that he is not interested in playing them all the way through. Instead, recalling Prince in the same venue ten years ago, the show becomes a series of medleys. With just a drummer and a synth player at the back of the stage, he demonstrates an invisible, physical control over the music, operating it like a string puppet, stopping or starting songs with the drop of a foot or the shrug of a shoulder, so they collapse in the middle and are gone.

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through. Pointing at people in the audience, real or imaginary, is a music hall thing. Bruce Dickinson and Metallica’s James Hetfield do it too. Amid a hokey message to follow your dreams, he recalls his time spent singing for $200 a night as a John Legend tribute act. Cue a perfect demonstration of Legend-style singing – before he suddenly sloughs off “all this bathrobe-and-candle-sexy acoustic Ed Sheeran shit”, while huge columns of flame engulf the stage.

Drake is still at his best with blue, slinky songs of alienation – “9”, “Over”, “Feel No Ways” and “Hotline Bling”, which doubles up as make-out music for the couples in the crowd. One pair of lovers, Drake establishes during one of his crowd surveys, have been together for ten years. “I can’t even make a relationship last ten days,” he laments. In 2012, he told the Guardian, “I’ve had too many girls to ever feel uncomfortable about the man that I am.” An old-school boast from a modern man.

The guest stars serve to highlight Drake’s variety, rather than shine on their own. Their songs, too, are started, suspended, chopped and screwed. Drake is more macho when there’s another guy onstage with him – doing “Successful”, with the literally named Trey Songz, or dueling with thefrenetic Skepta, who sounds so much tougher (maybe because he’s a Londoner). The two whirl around the stage like helicopter seeds.

Nicki Minaj, apparently Drake’s one-time lover, rises fembotishly from a hole in the stage and says in a London accent, “I want some fucking crumpets and tea.”

She adds, of her host, “This nigga single-handedly changed the game.” Minaj sings her song “Moment 4 Life”: “I call the shots, I am the umpire . . .” But she doesn’t really. Even her presence flares up quickly and is gone.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution