As England became a more mercantile country, expanding its empire and accelerating towards industrialisation, there emerged among the landed gentry of the 16th and 17th centuries the concept of Arcadia. Arcadia – or Arcady – was an opulent and harmonious pastoral vision that was made real through landscaping and remodelling and was driven by wealth, imagination, folly and indulgence. Arcadia belonged to the winners. It also spawned the Russian name Arkady.
It’s an interesting choice of title for Patrick Langley’s debut novel, which follows two brothers, the paternal and pragmatic Jackson and the more outgoing and creative Frank, as they navigate a rapidly disintegrating world. Their journey is perhaps more correctly described as a dérive, which Guy Debord defined as “rapid passage through varied ambiances”. It takes them from young boys and the sudden disappearance and probable death of their mother while at a European holiday resort, to surviving the modern city as orphans, and then on to a makeshift squat community called The Citadel, built on land belonging to crooked billionaires and exiled oligarchs.
Arkady appears first as “a looming figure with a blank, faceless head… a strange protector or vengeful foe”, obsessively drawn by a schoolboy Frank; then as a shadowy figure who rescues him from the midst of a riot; and later as the name they give to a canal boat they use to hide out on. Whichever form it takes, “Arkady” represents security, hope – and escape.
Though places are not named, Langley, a writer on art and contributing editor to The White Review, is particularly good at describing a city that is a hyper-London, an anti-Arcadian metropolis of blockades, off-grid detention centres and shadowed streets where “bin bags, heaped in squishy mounds, leak tarry juice; the run-off dribbles through a grille and into the tubes and tunnels of the city’s swollen bowels”. It’s a richly rendered place of “pigeon-nibbled chicken bones and dirty curbs”, where the sky thrums with helicopters and the fringes are wild, decaying hinterlands of silted canals that lead to failed garden-city utopias.
The novel raises questions about what happens after capitalism finally collapses. It offers a choice between the attempted communal living of The Citadel, which sits somewhere between the foreboding territories of Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie Stalker and a fringe stage at Glastonbury, and the more individualistic approach the semi-feral brothers come to favour. Facing an establishment intent on crushing those pursuing alternative lifestyles, the pair have nothing but the bond that ties them: “People don’t matter,” says older brother Jackson, as they flee the black-vested government goons sent to destroy their occupied camp. “None of this fucking matters, all of it’s bullshit, we can’t get out, we can’t stop it, they’ve won.”
Some of the secondary characters are a little underdrawn and I was left wondering exactly what happened to the boys’ mother and their father, who was present at whatever seismic tragedy happened in the moments before the book begins. Nevertheless, the premise is otherwise believable. This is an England part-wrecked not by obvious dystopian tropes such as war, virus or total economic collapse – half of society appears to be thriving – but by rent hikes, gentrification and the “decanting” of tower block residents. The smell of tear gas, the echo of footsteps in empty factories where things were once manufactured, and the clatter of rocks thrown at riot shields, is all too real.
It’s difficult not to think of JG Ballard throughout, but Langley’s unforgiving urban scapes also recall the sound of dubstep pioneer Burial or early pirate-station grime. The prose crackles with energy as the narrative follows the constant movement by placing the reader on a well-oiled tracking dolly, often zooming out to remind us of the bigger picture. Langley is a highly visual writer and Arkady an assured allegorical debut about a near-future Britain that is potentially only a recession or two away.
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 196pp, £12.99
This article appears in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman