Luke Brown, Theft (And Other Stories, 2020), 311pp.
Reviewed by Stuart Walton
The British author Luke Brown’s second novel, which follows a widely admired debut, My Biggest Lie (2014), turns its attention once more to the lives of youngish London hedonists, the real-life interim having been thrown into dismal shadow by the British event of Brexit. The new novel’s narrator, Paul Wright, has two jobs – one on a shallow style magazine, the other in a bookshop. He begins his story by referring to an unspecified terrible act he has committed but insists that it has to be understood against the backdrop of the referendum result of 2016, a period when the lamentations of the London media world were matched by distant rejoicing in the northern provinces.
This brutal dialectic threatens to drive a deep wedge into the soul of Paul, who comes from Fleetwood on the north Lancashire coast, a gaunt estuarial backwater accessible by modernised tram from the Blackpool seafront, and a world and a couple of eras away from London. That it fails to do so, beyond Paul registering a kind of ritualised horror when the fateful result becomes clear, gives notice that his inner life is more or less anaesthetised to the incursions of political reality. This is not a Brexit novel, for which one might now be thankful. The referendum comes and goes halfway through, but its author has perhaps intuited that it would be cooling down as a live issue by the time the book made its appearance, after the departure, in the late winter of 2020.
Divided into two halves like a Premier League match between teams from the capital and the ancestral northwest, Theft consigns its narrator, not entirely explicably, to a psychotherapist at the outset of Part Two. She is a smart American woman in a bookless office, who is inveigled into the narrative in the second person. In the manner of the more rigorous end of cheap therapy, she asks him some gently tendentious questions, rather than merely watching him sob, which he obstinately refuses to do. One of Paul’s problems is an egotistic affectlessness, a condition in which nothing really matters other than for how it pertains to the imperious self.Yet as the novel illustrates, this has risen to the status of a social pathology beyond the mitigation of mere individual talking cures.
A psychotherapist is a perennially handy novelistic device for sublimating the kind of authorial intervention that has long been unfashionable in the English-language novel. It is to Brown’s credit that he doesn’t overload these encounters, which form preambles to the remaining chapters, with expository freight. In the wake of what we have been warned is his terrible action, Paul is no more self-aware than he was when he began seeing her, which may in part have something to do with his own over-dramatisation of the action itself.
Emphasised by the division of its short chapters into small chunks where each pause for breath feels a little like the interlude of a television ad-break, the novel episodically recounts the progress of a friendship between the narrator and Emily Nardini. She is a mildly eremitical Scottish-Italian novelist engaged to be married to a considerably older writer, Andrew Lancaster, himself a prolific liberal historian who has settled into the well-heeled Holland Park hypocrisies of a late-life bon viveur. Andrew has a daughter, Sophie, a young blogger with a smouldering sense of political righteousness, a dedication to identity politics and a reflexive distaste for capitalism. The latter, hardened into the igneous crust of online ranting, has won her a momentary internet following. There is also an expansive supporting cast of marketing managers, publishers, editors and PhD students, who form an undifferentiated choric commentary on the amatory collisions and near-misses of Paul’s story.
One of the obstinate problems of contemporary novels of satiric social realism is that the events of the stories often stand autonomously, like jokes, as narrative units, interspersed with moments of poignant reflection that they do little in themselves to illustrate. In Theft, Brown is still working out this conundrum, and one of the more problematic consequences is that the characters, be they ever so versed in epigrammatic repartee, are universally dislikable. What is commendable about the novel in this light is the candour with which it presents its central character as the most problematic of all – a complacent, passive-aggressive self-enabler who is nonetheless a surefire hit with women of all dispositions, from cynical insight to deluded naïveté.
When Paul expounds on the ideological convulsions with which Sophie has confronted him, the text swells to an, albeit fleeting, register of genuine insight. Identity politics is now deep into its redress phase, in which the historically disadvantaged half of every binary opposition may not be subjected to criticism, and so Paul is jolted into a moment’s self-awareness of his own status as the theoretical victim: ‘It’s obvious why the next generation are hardening their morality, their stringency of expression, why they are turning away from irony, the grey area, why we are all black-and-whitening the world. Why wouldn’t they look for reasons to fail you, or me, to find us wanting?’ Elsewhere, he muses on the discomfiting bind in which modern gender relations have ensnared men: ‘I made the mistake of wondering out loud to Sophie whether one of the damages men might have done to women was to make it natural for them to believe anything bad that is said about men.’ At once condescending in its male perception of female gullibility, and aware that, whatever grain of truth it might secrete, expressing it is in itself an error, he can at least internally enact the painless mea maxima culpa that is also an important part of being a man.
Theft is at its best in demonstrating obliquely, although it never quite says as much, that the categories through which human relations have turned cold – gender, age, sexuality – have resulted in those aspects of identity being rendered ideological in themselves. On the male side of the gender conflict, there is a certain defensive pride in seeming immune to the emotional vicissitudes of women. It manifests in the incorrigibility of the mythically uncontrollable sexual urge, in a vacuous readiness to fight where fighting is the silliest option. Our hero carries Emily in his arms over a mud puddle on a pilgrimage to the Brontë Parsonage, in both directions, her perfunctory objections validating his antiquated impulse of chivalry. Faced with a sexual trio, even in the outer reaches of chemical intoxication, he bridles at the suggestion that he give oral sex to another man, the price he must pay in the charge of sexual timidity being offset by the undoubted reinforcement of his normative robustness. There is even a way, as Paul does, of constantly referring to himself as a “man” – ‘That’s the kind of man I am’ – that is anything but a neutral biological term.
Sophie’s blogs are withering about capitalist property relations, which form the under-explored Proudhonian theme of the title, but not half as enthusiastically as they are in their prosecution of the battle of the generations. What has often dismayed Generation X about the post-political stances of millennials is that they appear to be unlearning the bitter lessons of the sixties counterculture, which proved so easily co-optable precisely because it was founded on nothing more subversive than the generation gap. Social history goes on staging its cyclical farces.
How many more ironic, but ultimately inconsequential, novels about the tenor of the times are needed remains a debatable point, but it didn’t unduly worry Trollope. Those whose appetite for them was long ago sated will tend to feel that another interior monoblog of this sort adds very little to what cultural commentators and those Twitter subscribers who have managed to contain their rage are already saying. That said, Luke Brown is an accomplished stylist in the interludes in which he permits himself to be. On that trip to the Brontë house at Haworth, the assertive landscape and Paul’s glancing relationship with literary culture prompt a nostalgic melange of emotion and meteorology, painted in the fauve colours that bring vivid quickness to any descriptive passage: ‘The bus reached the top of the moors and shook the hills out below us. The sun only shone through some of the clouds, lighting up bright-green planes tinged with orange and purple, casting great moving shadows upon the hillscape, squirming clots of darkness shifting shape like my worst envies’. ‘Upon’! The unquiet ghost of that other Emily is still abroad after all.
The Parsonage itself, terminus of a press of international tourist traffic, fails to inspire. In any case, it belongs to another literary world entirely. There are other priorities now, and other paradoxical impasses. If Paul perceives late in the present narrative that ‘it is impossible to disagree about an overstatement of the case without seeming to prove the overstated case itself’, he falls into line fifty pages later with the one-dimensional fury of Sophie’s generationalism. ‘Why shouldn’t they judge and convict the enemies? There is no kindness due to those in the way of justice, to those who won’t surrender. They are readying for war’. Bob Dylan said something similar in 1964, and look at him.
Stuart Walton is the author of many books including Intoxicology: A Cultural History of Drink and Drugs; In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling; Introducing Theodor Adorno; a monograph on the chilli pepper, The Devil’s Dinner; and a novel, The First Day in Paradise. He lives in southwest England.