Keith Ridgway’s sixth novel, A Shock, doesn’t follow a central character, or even, substantially, a set of characters. It’s peopled by loosely acquainted present-day South Londoners, anxious, precariously employed, bright and lonely. Diverse by age, ethnicity and sexuality, they’re narrower by class: nobody well off enough to own a whole house, and nobody in real, urgent trouble. Although the same people flit in and out of each chapter, it’s not these glancing collisions, or the occasional nudges reminding the reader of a connection between different parts of the book, that make this a novel rather than a collection of short stories. Ridgway draws in the reader with signs that a linking truth runs through these fragmentary episodes, not so much a thread as a buried cable, a current beneath the surface of the city.
He signals his pursuit in the epigraph, from Sartre’s The Bedroom. It begins: ‘There is a wall between you and me. I can see you, I can speak to you, but you’re on the other side. What stops us from loving each other?’ A Shock is a book of silences and incomprehension between people who nonetheless believe they know and are communicating with each other: one-time schoolfriends Stan, the Labour activist, and Gary, the would-be photographer; lovers living together Stan and Maria, an assistant librarian at a private school; colleagues Maria and Anna, a teacher at the school, who seems to be one kind of storyteller, and turns out to be quite another; casual sexual partners Tommy and Frank, friends who meet for dreamy, almost absent-minded chemsex; employer and employee, Ronnie the plumber and his mate Pigeon, whom Ronnie accidentally leaves behind at the end of a workday and who hides for days in the attic of a client’s house.
We have access to the characters’ rich, funny thought-lives, but they can’t access one another’s. Their chief means of understanding other people, and the world, is not speech but sight. The opening section, ‘The Party’, is told from the point of view of an unnamed elderly widow living alone with her cat in a terraced house, her solitude broken only by visits ‘once in a while from people who were friends but who now are strange old men, strange old women’. Her neighbours, a gay couple, come round to tell her they’re having a party. They bring propitiatory, jokey offerings, a cheap box of chocolates, a bottle of wine, earplugs, an old iPod with some of their old music loaded on it. She feels despised. The men don’t invite her to the party, and she doesn’t ask if she can come, or knock on the door later, when the beat is pumping through the walls. Instead she constructs a version of the party in her imagination, in which a lonely young woman guest will be her friend. The old woman begins picking at a tiny dent in the plaster on the wall between the houses, tearing and pulling until she removes enough plaster to see light from the neighbours’ kitchen. She squeezes into the space between the two layers of plaster and plants her eye against the hole. It’s easier for her to demolish part of her house and look directly, wordlessly, into the heart of the party (as it turns out at the close of the novel, the party guests can also look directly at her eye) than to ask if she can enter.
The eye is not only a mistaken stand-in for speech. Ridgway’s work turns on the ambiguity of the concept of the wrongly seen – both what is seen but wrongly characterised by the seer, and what, in the consciousness of the seen, should not be seen at all. In the section called ‘The Camera’, Stan becomes uneasy when his friend Gary, whom he’s been close to since they were at school, starts sending him long-range photos that he’s taken of Stan without his knowledge. At first, the hints of menace, guilt and racial tension – Gary is Black, Stan is not, and the episode is told from Stan’s point of view – seem to enter the territory of Michael Haneke’s Caché, but Ridgway’s story is subtler, less gothic. Stan always knows who’s sending the pictures; eventually he confronts Gary, who works in B&Q but is trying to make it as a photographic chronicler of the everyday. Stan feels wrongly seen, in the vague sense that Gary shouldn’t have been taking his picture from a distance without asking. Gary also feels wrongly seen by Stan: he was sending the photos as a friendly gesture, proof of what his new camera could do. Half-spoken is Gary’s sense that Stan’s unease is racist paranoia, a microaggressive ‘What are you looking at?’
The delicacy of Ridgway’s portrayal of the two men is that you believe they like each other, and that their break probably won’t be for ever. Stan is proud that as a boy he hung on to his friendship with Gary, who is gay, swallowing his discomfort at the realisation others assumed he was gay too. Ridgway might leave you thinking Gary was also overreacting, if it weren’t that Stan’s emotionally inarticulate chauvinism emerges in other ways. He can talk about political class relations, but not individual human relations. He can’t talk to his girlfriend Maria, and by way of displacement broods over how much he dislikes her brother. In the pub where he meets Gary, he nurses a baseless loathing for a friendly, shabby, old regular, Yves, whose name he gets wrong. He knows nothing about the man: he sees him around, and doesn’t like what he sees. He doesn’t know why he finds him ‘obscene’, but he does. The word is echoed when Stan watches Gary’s reaction to being told that sending the photos is weird and creepy:
Gary stared at him. Then he dropped his head into his hands, and started to slide it out again, slowly, pulling his lower eyelids and the skin of his cheeks down with his palms and his fingers, so that he looked like a ghost face but black emerging out of his own hands, his big eyeballs focused on Stan who watched him with a feeling like disgust, as if this distorted, elongated face was something he should not be seeing, that it was none of his business, it was a private thing that no one should see, something personal and obscene.
In the most mysterious and challenging section, ‘The Flat’, the character who sees is the reader. We stare at and listen voyeuristically to the life of a young professional man, David, living alone in rented South London rooms. Ridgway switches to a neutral register. The normal novelistic hierarchy of significance, in which everything noticed is important and everything unnoticed isn’t, ceases to apply. Which of our observations of David matter? Is it: ‘In the living room and kitchen there is just the morning air and the sound of drilling which starts and stops, starts and stops. David walks through the flat to the fridge. His shoes are loud on the linoleum. He pours himself an orange juice’? Is it: ‘He snaps the blinds shut and watches the pornography and masturbates. When he ejaculates he pinches some of his semen in his fingers and puts it in his mouth, his eyes still on the screen’? Neither? Both? The sum of what we learn about a person’s true nature when we’re allowed to watch their every move turns out to be almost nothing. We catch David lying. We catch him wanking. We see him having guys over for unsatisfying sex. We catch him making a face behind someone’s back. To see him at all, in the way Ridgway sets it up, seems to be an example of wrong seeing.
It’s not that ‘The Flat’ is eventless. There’s even a mystery. Shortly after he moves in, David discovers that nobody knows what happened to the previous tenants, Karl and Peppi. The downstairs neighbours, who thought the couple were their friends, think they disappeared; the police, noting that Karl and Peppi took their valuables and left a large amount of unpaid rent, reckon they simply did a runner. One day David comes across a huge stash of photos of two men having sex. Having confirmed by a mild deception of his neighbours that the two men are Karl and Peppi, David is provoked into an – obliquely described – onanistic frenzy that dislocates him, temporarily if bruisingly, from his fastidious world of office work and circumscribed hook-ups. But the only defined character in ‘The Flat’ is the reader, compelled by Ridgway to make a judgment about David that we don’t have the knowledge to make. We could suppose him to be an untrustworthy, self-obsessed, prissy bore; we could suppose him to be transfigured by a libidinous fantasy of self-abandonment into a more serene, less materialistic person. What Ridgway shows could lead us to either conclusion, or to others, and he shows it in such clinical language that he seems – or rather his authorial persona seems – to demand that we draw a conclusion, when he knows we can’t.
Ridgway has a longstanding wariness of the eye and its mechanical proxy, the camera. It predates his 2012 novel, Hawthorn & Child, a successful blend of the loosely linked vignettes characteristic of A Shock and elements of the traditional novel: an eponymous cop duo, a philosophical master criminal, a shooting, gore. The narrator of Animals (2006), struck by the sight of a dead mouse in the gutter, resists a friend’s suggestion that he take a photo:
I would be editing out the noise of the traffic, the voices, the shuffle of feet on the pavement, the high rumble of the aeroplanes, the sound of the world as it is. I would be editing out the spring confusion of a clear fresh day and exhaust fumes; the low lumpen scent of the burger bar at my back; the ineffable musk of the city, never mind of the mouse itself. I would also be editing out my own reaction to this scene … I would be editing out the sadness.
The Londoners of A Shock, who live in a part of the city roughly bounded by Brixton, Camberwell and Peckham, suffer from a condition familiar to inhabitants of mighty, superficially dynamic world capitals. They assume they’ve landed in their final destination, but experience all the symptoms of people itching to move. ‘Snap out of it,’ Pigeon tells himself. ‘Get out of London. Which is only a fraction of the world. You know? A tiny dense little fraction. It is not the full extent of things.’ But he’d rather hide in the attic of his boss’s client’s house than ask her to let him out. ‘From the edge of her bed to the wood in the window was as much as she could manage,’ Maria the school librarian thinks. ‘That everything else is the world. And the world has no paths. And nothing can make them.’ The old woman in ‘The Party’ – hinted, like Ridgway, to be Irish – remembers her dead husband with love, but doesn’t value the things they told each other about their pasts. ‘That was their exchange. She took him back in time to a small farm and minute adventures. He took her to places that had never existed.’ Her present is as absurd as it is unalterable. ‘London, she thinks to herself. In England. Of the world’s many ludicrous places she had to choose London.’ When you fall into London, the response is not to climb out, but to make yourself as comfortable as you can. In the words of Tommy, the beautiful young hedonist in ‘The Sweat’:
It’s like, OK, you want me to have this ridiculously complicated life of managing a million things at once while you exploit and deride me and abuse me, well fine, I’ll take something that makes me feel comfortable with that level of complexity, that amount of shit that I have to stress about, you know, like work, like paying the rent.
This section is the novel’s best demonstration of Ridgway’s linguistic versatility. He renders Tommy’s journey to Frank’s house, sweating, tripping and horny, in lyrical language distorted by drugs. ‘Nothing was coming through him but innards, his innermost. His skin was a leathery peel. A wet dry thing. He had been scraped and reapplied to himself and now he was dying in the street like an ant on fire.’
The force that binds people to London is quite close to the surface in ‘The Sweat’. When Tommy strips for a shower, he feels ‘something like a child and something like a prisoner’. Frank and Tommy take drugs, have sex, discuss whether to get a third guy over (Gary is mentioned), chat amiably, veer between a sense of great warmth, safety, agape, and a sense of anxiety about their life-drift. Each has his burden of HIV awareness: Tommy takes his prophylactic; Frank is undetectable. One of the drugs they take is GHB, also known as liquid ecstasy, which needs to be taken in such small quantities, and at such precise minimum intervals, that overdosing is a matter of less than a single milligram. It’s the perfect symbol of modern London. In order to survive as a libertine, you must be a bookkeeper. ‘I get very thorough,’ Frank says. ‘I need to be pointed at something. I’m an old fool. Good god. I could sit here for days and just not really notice. Have we had enough sex do you think? I’m not sure we have Tommy.’
Actually moving out of London is the least plausible way of breaking the awful and comforting stasis of the characters’ city lives. Political change is another option, but this, too, is shown to be improbable, even as the over-privileged private school families, exploitative landlords and mean employers in the background make it necessary. In ‘The Meeting’, Stan and his small group of fellow activists try to organise a political meeting in the local pub and get stuck in a morass of prickly egos, off-the-shelf ideals and procedural arcana. In his rooms above the pub, Harry, the struggling, put-upon tenant landlord, has a nightmare about being overrun by mice. (Rats and mice, occasionally anthropomorphised, are a minor Ridgway obsession.) In Harry’s dream they swarm across the rooms, covering all the surfaces. They are holding a meeting. They become one with Harry, in imitation of a famous image: Abraham Bosse’s engraving for the frontispiece of Hobbes’s Leviathan, but with Harry as the sovereign, and mice as the multitude forming him. In place of Bosse’s image of representation and consent is Ridgway’s despairing vision of the obstacles to collective action, the sovereign flummoxed by this divergent composite of wills: ‘They seemed to want something, and to speak in tiny voices that he could not hear, and plead with him in ways he could not make out, and they seemed to present to him petitions and requests.’
A Shock raises the possibility that our usual discrimination between ‘real’ and ‘fantastical’ ways out of social or personal stagnation might miss the point. After ‘What stops us from loving each other?’ the Sartre epigraph goes on:
‘It seems to me it was easier, once upon a time. In Hamburg.’
‘Yes,’ said Ève sadly. Always Hamburg. He never spoke of their real past. Neither Ève nor he had been to Hamburg.
The novel alters the apparent pessimism of this sentiment. Better to embrace the energy of an idea, of imagination, before the point at which it is proved wrong or right. Across two chapters, ‘The Joke’ and ‘The Story’, a pair of older characters who haunt the pub, Anna, the teacher, and Yves, the garrulous toper, are seen as entertaining and infuriating liars, seeding South London with fantastical anecdotes, riling the other regulars but also enlarging their realities. ‘Why did you lie to me?’ Maria asks Anna. ‘I just like to entertain,’ Anna says, but she does more, offering a mirror to Ridgway’s own fictions, as she and Yves tell each other alternative versions of the novel’s chapters. Like Dougal Douglas, the sinister fabulist of The Ballad of Peckham Rye (Muriel Spark, a one-time Camberwell resident, is mentioned by Anna and Yves), the two old storytellers’ tales have an energising effect independent of their truth or benignity.
There are two shocks mentioned in A Shock, the shock of death and the shock of happiness. Yves claims to have inherited a family greeting: ‘May your death come as a shock to you.’ He presents it as an act of well-wishing, although it sounds menacing when he says it. The shock of happiness is Tommy’s idea. In the Uber from Frank’s place, he launches into a three-page monologue on the nature of happiness. He imagines in vivid, claustrophobic detail potholers crawling through tight spaces deep underground until they suddenly come across a vast and beautiful cavern. He starts his oration with the words ‘Happiness is lovely to come across,’ and when he ends, Frank says: ‘Yes, it is.’ But Tommy doesn’t know why Frank says ‘Yes, it is,’ because he has already forgotten how he began.