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1 October 2015

Was there no one to stop Morrissey publishing List of the Lost?

Asking a decent editor to save this book would have been like asking a doctor to help a corpse that had fallen from the top of the Empire State Building.

By John Niven

Had Johnny Marr not rung the 23-year-old Morrissey’s doorbell back in 1982, you can fairly easily see your way to an alternative future where Morrissey would now be publishing his tenth or twelfth novel. His first probably would have appeared blushingly around 1988, following the usual couple of stillbirths and abortions gurgling in the bottom drawers of the desk. Morrissey the novelist would have come good in the mid-1990s (novelists generally hitting their stride in their thirties) and we would now be dealing with “mature” Morrissey, the imperial phase.

However, as it stands, Morrissey the 56-year-old debut novelist (at that age Lawrence was dead, Wilde was dead, Nabokov had just published Lolita) is forced to appear on stage instantly and in full bloom. What, you may be wondering, is the emperor wearing? Absolutely nothing, it turns out.

I’ll try to summarise the plot for you. Four 20-year-old college boys – Ezra, Nails, Justy and Harri – are relay runners training for a big event. During a walk in the woods they are accosted by a tramp. After making a (five-page) long speech the tramp attempts to fondle Ezra’s testicles. Ezra kills him with a single punch. The boys hide the body and tell no one of the murder. Almost immediately Harri’s mother dies and Harri commits suicide. Following Harri’s wake Ezra is accosted not by the ghost of the tramp he murdered (which would at least have been within touching distance of logic) but by the ghost of the mother of a boy who was sexually abused and then murdered by the dean of the college they attend.

Ghost tells Ezra that she wants her son’s body properly buried. Ezra tells the others and the three boys (along with Ezra’s girlfriend, Eliza) dig up the child’s corpse to afford it the proper respect. Justy and Nails then visit the dean intending to beat a confession out of him. Instead the (septuagenarian) dean batters both (20-year-old) athletes to death with twin champagne ­bottles. (“How on earth could it have been so easy?” the dean reflects. Well exactly, the astonished reader wonders.) Ezra and Eliza are then involved in a car crash that leaves her dead and him in hospital, where as he dies he is (finally) visited by the spectre of the tramp he has killed.

All of this happens in 118 pages. As the author himself says in one of the few genuinely funny asides in this slim novella, “Edgar Allan Poe couldn’t concoct this.”

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Along the way, for those looking for such things, there are insights into Morrissey’s relationship with the opposite sex: “A girl laughed at me when we were 13 and that widening mouth of laughter, as dumb and sterile as it was, the vicious disdain because I couldn’t measure up.” “The lust of the woman is at first childlike and desperate.” “Females as there they lay, under the male, with nothing to lose.” The terrifying coldness of that “female” and that “male”. As the psychiatrist in Fawlty Towers would have it, there’s enough material there for an entire conference.

Then there’s the vegetarianism. Every single character is a vegetarian. We get: “They blow up live pigs imagining them to be Muslims” from the murdered tramp. “You backslide like factory-farmed pigs . . . whose primal screams ignite no humane response from their human killers” comes from the athletics coach. (And doesn’t that sound just like a sports coach to you?) Meanwhile, the narrator ruminates on “pigs, like slaughterhouse bulls, cut into ribbons by the thrill-kill human race”, while “two billion loving animals a year are being butchered in concentration camps” comes from Eliza. “At this stage,” the narration points out, “it hardly mattered who was saying what.” Again – exactly.

In terms of actual prose analysis, there are single sentences containing no fewer than seven ham-fisted hyphenated conjunctions (“Side-swipe tear-ass anchor-weight knee-pumping dead-shot morgue-bound skull-bone”). Then there’s the alliteration. Dear God, there is the endless, arch, aimless alliteration. We are told of a “schoolboy soul”, of a place where “shafts of speed leave sparks”. A world where the “coach croaks” a “muttering mantra” filled with “muttonhead meaning” about “savage sport”. Fair enough over the course of a book – but all of these fall within a single page.

Much has been made in other reviews of how a decent editor might have saved this book, or helped it at any rate. In truth, this would be like asking a doctor to help a corpse that had fallen from the top of the Empire State Building. What a decent editor should have done would have been to drop the manuscript slowly from the slush pile into the wastepaper basket. What a decent friend should have done (and reading this, one wonders if Morrissey has any friends. Was there no literate adult around to say, “Ah, hang on a minute . . .”) would have been to tell him to leave this sorry, ­gurgling mess in the desk drawer and move on to the next thing, in the hope that maybe a decade later he would arrive at writing an actual novel.

List of the Lost confirms one thing powerfully: the enormous favour that Johnny Marr did the world when he rang that doorbell back in 1982.

List of the Lost” by Morrissey is published by Penguin (118pp, £7.99)

John Niven’s books include “Kill Your Friends” (Windmill) and “The Sunshine Cruise Company” (William Heinemann)

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This article appears in the 30 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide