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Dark abracadabra: the supernatural adolescents of Daisy Johnson's Fen

Johnson's new collection of stories mixes the occult and banal to place young women at the centre of the picture.

It feels perverse to argue that the stories in this collection could do with more drama. After all, in one of them, a man returns to life as a fox after a fatal argument with his twin brother, who, in a separate story, courts our narrator without guessing that she and her female housemates are cannibals. Yet the gradual seepage of excitement is one of the many peculiar things going on in Daisy Johnson’s startling and inventive debut, which puts a supernatural spin on the trials of women and girls in a small, rural community in Cambridgeshire, topographically recognisable but washed clean of specifics, unless you count the mention of a Travelodge on the A10.

Reckless drinking and after-dark fumbles at the local estuary are among the main ­pursuits in the one-pub town where these tales unfold. We are told of a young man, considered something of a catch, who “liked to take a girl on the bus to the cinema in the city and then to Subway”.

Johnson’s mixing of the occult and the ­banal is a clever way to approach the transformations of youth, with uncanny goings-on a proxy for violent rites of passage. Yet the weirdness in these stories is tinglingly alive on its own terms, seldom calibrated to make us ask what is really happening, despite the lurking subtexts. In “A Heavy Devotion”, a new mother loses the power of speech as her son gains his; in “A Bruise the Size and Shape of a Door Handle”, a teenager living with her widowed father is attacked by fixtures and fittings after bringing a girl home to bed.

Among the most striking reversals of Johnson’s world is that it is men’s bodies that are scrutinised and consumed (sometimes literally). Caught between sexual insecurity and voracity, the young women here turn the tables on their casual hook-ups. As the narrator of “How to Fuck a Man You Don’t Know” tells us: “When he says he likes your boobs or that your bottom is tight or that you’re pretty fun aren’t you, you tell him words are cheap enough to spit and push his face the place you want it to go.” Pungent sex scenes shun metaphor and leave inviting blanks: “His hands on your back, yours round his neck, the edge of the bed shifting into that position you like . . .”

The stories in Fen invest familiar scenarios with fresh energy, and yet a sense grows, over the course of the book, that they are written to a formula that might be stretched further. Typically they turn on a striking premise: those man-eating housemates in “Blood Rites”, preying on predictable desires; the husband who dies of a blood clot but comes back from the dead in “Language”; or the woman made of clay in “Birthing Stones”, waiting at a restaurant to meet her internet date.

Then, the conceit established, some bizarre ramifications are catalogued: the cannibals take on the characteristics of their victims; the voice of the resurrected man makes his wife’s nose bleed; the woman on a date hears “the internal crackings of her baked insides, felt the make-up run from her clay skin”.

And often this is where Johnson leaves us, sidestepping any pay-off to skip ahead to the next serving of dark abracadabra. The clay woman finishes her meal – she has been stood up – only for her date to ­arrive. “Emma . . . I’m so sorry,” he says, and the story ends as she is about to reply. The unnamed man-eater tucks in to a veterinary surgeon and finds medical terminology “spilling out in a stream I could not see the end of: adrenal, abdominal, abrin, antipyretic, aortic, arrhythmia . . .”

It is tempting to add “And?” – if only because Fen offers ample evidence of Johnson adding punch to the pizzazz. In “Starver”, the narrator, Suze, is a schoolgirl whose elder sister, Katy, has sworn off food, following the historical example (or so an ominous prologue implies) of local fish that starved themselves to death after the draining of the land where the book is set. Suze colludes in her sister’s deceptions and eventual self-obliteration because of a sense that Katy is allowing her into her life in a way that “she’d never done when I tailed her to netball practice or balanced on the edge of the sofa while she and her friends watched films”. The vista of longing that opens up in this small detail shows just how good Johnson can be when she makes the magic count. l

Fen by Daisy Johnson is published by Jonathan Cape (208pp, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game