Perishability

Andy Beckett

  • Scepticism Inc. by Bo Fowler
    Cape, 247 pp, £9.99, April 1998, ISBN 0 224 05124 5

There is a kind of modern writing, mostly found in books by young novelists and books about young artists, that tries not to seem like writing at all. One characteristic of this style is that it leaves things out – similes, imagery and other literary devices aren’t used, physical description is kept to a minimum. But these new writers are not trying to be Hemingway: their sentences do not hint at hard, manly hours of paring down. Instead, the spareness is playful, a mocking of literary craft. Some paragraphs are just one-liners. Their tone is that of TV or the Sun. This is the first paragraph of Blimey!, a recent book about young British artists by Matthew Collings:

I went to Quo Vadis the other night. That’s the well-known restaurant in Dean Street that Damien Hirst recently redesigned. Now it’s full of art by young people who are in Vogue and on TV all the time ... It’s in Benson & Hedges ads and in rock promo videos and TV ads. There’s one where a teenager makes a sandwich ... and the next thing you know it’s in a vitrine in a white gallery with intellectuals peering at it.

Writing like this looks easy. Sauntering from subject to subject, transcribing your thoughts, taking your sentences wherever you fancy. And when things get a bit too stream-of-consciousness, white space is a great redeemer. Blimey! has line spaces between every paragraph, and splits every chapter into sub-sections. One chapter is only six pages long. Bite-sized writing sells, too. Even the most academic branch of Water-stones is full of miniature books, magazines made up of extracts and novellas by novelists with demanding agents and time-pressured readers. The influence of e-mail is probably also making authors squeeze and flatten their writing. Yet none of this quite explains Collings’s cheery chat, or the studied and much imitated banality of William Leith’s Observer column, or the join-the-dots phrasing of a new and praised novelist like Toby Litt. What seems to be happening is a demotion of language: it is employed only for the carrying of information, with a nudge to the reader that the action is elsewhere, in the play of ideas beneath the bland words, in the overall notion of the piece, in the sentences’ self-consciousness about the act of writing itself. These writers are like art students from Goldsmiths’: never mind the finish, feel the concept.

Thus the first page of this first novel reads:

Florida was the largest producer of tangerines in the world. Production in the late Nineties reached twenty million boxes annually. Orange City, a town in the south of Florida, had a population in 1998 of just 2795. One person who lived in Orange City at that time and had occasional involvement with the tangerine business was Daphne Stephenson.

This could be a company briefing, or a dull news story, or something from a speak-and-spell machine. And it is not just opening-page perversity, the rest of Scepticism Inc. is written in the same rhythmless fragments, thousands of them, sitting in their frames of white space like incompetent haikus. Meanwhile the tale they haltingly tell is almost too complicated to summarise. Daphne Stephenson works in a supermarket, and is prone to epileptic fits. During a particularly vicious one, her boss calls for a priest. The priest, in a panic, knocks her unconscious with a piece of ostrich meat from the store freezer. She dies, the police come, and the priest and the remaining supermarket staff, for reasons unexplained, form a cult and barricade themselves in a nearby church. The resulting siege leaves one survivor, Edgar Malroy, the baby of a checkout girl. He becomes the main character. This is just the first chapter. The rest of the book is set in the near future, and is narrated by a shopping trolley. While Edgar is growing into a strange and devious young man, with an infinite hostility to all religions, this trolley is ‘born’ in an industrial estate outside Chelmsford. Like all the machines in Bo Fowler’s sketchily imagined future, it is fitted with a silicon chip that enables it to remember and think. For the first three weeks of its life, its circuits are filled with information about products and store closing times; then it is sent to the St Pancras branch of a chain called ShopALot.

One day, after being dragged off to Regent’s Park by some truanting children, the trolley is rattling its way grumpily back to its supermarket when it passes a church on whose spire the cross has been replaced by a giant question-mark; inside is Edgar Malroy. He has turned the building into a betting shop. Its target customers, though, are not the reckless and jobless of sooty St Pancras, but the religious. Malroy is offering odds on ‘metaphysical assertions’ – on expressions of faith, however absurd, in any religion or belief system. In fact the more absurd and unprovable the better. That way the punters won’t ever win. They are crowding in regardless:

a Buddhist who wanted to place a £20 bet that Buddhist meditation will produce the conditions that allow a person to see absolute reality; a Muslim who wanted to make a £85 bet that the Angel Gabriel brought the revelation of the Qur’an to Mohammed; a realist who wanted to bet £100 that whatever exists has its character independent of it being perceived by man or God.

Edgar opens a chain of Metaphysical Betting Shops. He sets up a company called Scepticism Inc. Soon bishops are arriving with bundles of banknotes and points of doctrine to prove. Archbishops rush to bet more than bishops, Tibetans to out-gesture Jews, conspiracy theorists to make greater claims than UFO-spotters. In the meantime, Scepticism Inc., the great international anti-religion, starts to become a religion itself. Whenever Edgar has sucked in all the money from a church or temple, he turns it into betting shop, and records his victory in a notebook. After a time these procedures become rituals. Thus Scepticism Inc. acquires a bible (‘the black book of deceased religions’), a theological college (‘Who Knows College’), an evangelical channel (‘Who Knows TV’) and a St Peter’s of its own (‘Sceptic Tower’). Edgar fills up all the emptied cathedrals with betting slips.

Organised religion is hardly the freshest or trickiest of targets, but thoroughness improves a satire. And once the story picks up momentum, Fowler’s busy little paragraphs work like ants, carrying shreds of plot development from Jerusalem and Rome, Mecca and the Himalayas. His news-bulletin style starts to seem logical, in fact the only way to keep a tale of such scale and detail moving.

Then there is Edgar’s enemy. Sophia Alderson is a ‘ridiculously beautiful’ young woman, who claims to be a close friend of the Virgin Mary. Near the start, in one of the book’s slightly lunging coincidences, she happens to walk into the church in St Pancras, wearing a sandwich board with a message about sin and the end of the world. She and Edgar have an argument which lasts for ‘12 hours non-stop’ – like a maths freak or a young child, Fowler is keen on great size and precise numbers. When Sophia storms off, the squabble swells, first into a public contest of proclamation and counter-proclamation, then into a confrontation between their crowds of disciples. Sophia resorts to rocket weapons.

In parallel with the Sophia-Edgar story, and the spread of Scepticism Inc., and the worldwide collapse, intricately detailed, of several religions, are the wanderings of the trolley. It does not share Edgar and Sophia’s certainties, and embarks on an ascent of Everest in search of perspective. As it trundles and scrapes its way up the ice walls, the trolley speculates about God. Why do humans want one? How can its existence be proved? If proof is impossible, does that make God impossible, too? These questions are posed like good jokes, with much wry reference to Kant and Horace and, especially, Nietzsche. This grates a little. Against the bright, shiny frame of Fowler’s story Nietzsche’s stern statements, in direct quotation, loom absurdly out of scale. And when Fowler paraphrases, or turns his favourite tracts into dialogue, the effect is glib, a bit postgraduate (Fowler studied philosophy at Bristol University, his publisher is keen to make known). His pages seem to be congratulating themselves, like Alain de Botton’s.

Sometimes the action scenes, too, are overdone. Early on, Fowler gives more than two pages to the funeral of a minor character. It takes place in a vast meteorite crater. There are thousands of plastic chairs around the coffin, with religious and political leaders in them; hundreds of performing elephants, accompanied by yodellers; a water cannon display; a fly-past; and, far above, launched on cue, a closing net of intercontinental missiles, which collide to scent the air with crushed garlic. At best, this type of tongue-in-cheek panorama is like bad Pynchon; at worst like a misfiring crowd scene from Monty Python. But Fowler is better than brattish. Inside his throw-away connecting sentences – ‘time passed’, ‘things got worse’, ‘things were out of control’ – is an ever-present rumble of pessimism. Like a supermarket manager, he is much concerned with perishability. The trolley measures time in the only way its silicon chip has been taught to: as ‘the space of a special offer’, or ‘the time it takes for a carton of milk to go off’. Such processes are not reversible: nature, or capitalism, always runs its course and in its turn Edgar Malroy’s empire begins to crack and fall.

The trolley’s response to all this echoes Kurt Vonnegut’s punctuating phrase, ‘so it goes’, from Slaughterhouse Five. It just says aloha, defined here as Hawaiian for ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’, and trundles on. When Sceptic Tower is besieged by Scepticism Inc.’s opponents, and Edgar is injured, and London is piled with Scepticism Inc.’s dead employees, and the trolley itself is bent and half-melted, the narration stays dead as a shelf-stacker’s instructions. But then the author suddenly permits a concluding outbreak of sadness. The trolley expresses its first emotion; there is a clunky epitaph. Like Damien Hirst’s better work, the melancholy makes all the tricks worth bearing.