Thought-Quenching

Thomas Jones

  • Deadmeat by Q.
    Sceptre, 256 pp, £6.99, May 1997, ISBN 0 340 68558 1
  • King Rat by China Miéville
    Macmillan, 333 pp, £9.99, November 1998, ISBN 0 333 73881 0

Leaping around in a warehouse to the rhythms of repetitive beats and thumping basslines is a simple pleasure, though not, of course, to everyone’s taste. At the same time it is a tremendously difficult sensation to convey in writing, partly because it is so simple: the most basic feelings, experienced at a pre-verbal level, are by their nature the hardest to verbalise. The primary difficulty facing anyone who wishes to write creatively (rather than critically) about dance music is how to translate music into language: to evoke, rather than merely describe, the experience of the dancer. Browning, a master of this kind of translation between art forms, wrote to Ruskin in 1855 about the problem of articulating pre-verbal ideas: ‘I know that I don’t make out my conception by my language ... You would have me paint it all out, which can’t be; but by various artifices I try to make shift with touches and bits and outlines which succeed if they bear the conception from me to you.’ The idiom of the record sleeve is one option open to writers of club fiction: China Miéville concludes his acknowledgments in King Rat with ‘awe and gratitude especially to A Guy Called Gerald for the sublime Gloc: old, now, but still the most terrifying slab of guerrilla bass ever committed to vinyl. Rewind.’ In the central club episode of Deadmeat, Q writes of a DJ’s music that it is not ‘a tight cosy rinse, but an intense traumatic soak that ripped through the senses ... a hybrid of dancehall drum’n’bass and abstract sounds that kicked at over 160 beats per minute on a transglobal vibe’. Fine for the initiate, but not much good for anyone else; like all jargon, it is exclusive. Fortunately, both writers use it sparingly.

Dick Francis is unusual in being able to arouse in the pedestrian reader some of a jockey’s excitement, though many jockeys have experienced the thrill of winning an important race. Many more people have experienced the thrill of ‘losing it’ in a club, but equally few could re-animate the joy of it in somebody else. Soldiers don’t necessarily make the best writers about war, and a novelist’s knowledge of the world he describes may have little bearing on the success of his novel.

To write a work of club fiction, dependent as it is on successful translation from another art form, is therefore a far more ambitious project than it may at first appear; it is also an increasingly popular one among first-time novelists. This is not necessarily a bad thing: with everyone fretting about the future of the novel in the multimedia age, club fiction seems a fair attempt to push the form in a fresh direction.

One of the most successful (in every sense) and seasoned practitioners of the genre is Irvine Welsh. When Q writes that the ravers entering a club ‘were ready to escape the confusion and turmoil of their day to day lives’, he is merely telling us what Welsh succeeds in making us share. In Ecstasy, Welsh’s 1996 trio of novellas, the club scenes provide relief from the violence and depravity he describes elsewhere, both for the book’s characters and its readers.[*] The escapist element is firmly established in the first of the stories, ‘Lorraine Goes to Livingston: A Rave and Regency Romance’, in which clubbing is compared with romances (of the Mills – Boon variety) about waltzing, which was frowned on for its immorality when first introduced to Britain in the 1810s. Welsh writes about the internal experience of the clubber, but both Miéville and Q tend to shy away from this, describing the scene more from an observer’s perspective – and clubbing isn’t much of a spectator sport.

The Observer called Welsh ‘the undisputed leader of the new wave of contemporary British fiction’. The jacket of Deadmeat quotes the Big Issue: ‘A new wave of creative talent is growing up from the club arena. Q ... is one of its pioneers.’ The hero-narrator, Clarkie, has just been released from prison when the novel opens. He returns home to find that his brother, Bones, with the aid of his assistant Froggy, has become a phenomenally successful painter and computer artist who has just opened an ultra-modern club in South London. Meanwhile, a serial killer who tracks down his victims (users of child pornography) over the Internet is operating in the city, leaving a dead white rat as his calling card.

A certain amount of effort has been made to emphasise the modernity of the book as artefact: the jacket is bright yellow, the titles neon pink, and the whole is the same sort of size as a Langenscheidt pocket dictionary; the font is a modern-looking sans serif; in the top right-hand corner of every odd-numbered page is a small image that gives the impression of growing and shrinking concentric circles when you flick through the pages at speed. The novel is divided into 123 ‘sides’, and is interspersed with unacknowledged quotations from records. Deadmeat began life in serial form, its instalments distributed in clubs by the author. As a novel, remixed for the album, as it were, these have gained little. The framing thriller plot is thin verging on flimsy, and the dénouement prompts a shrug at best – the story had to be resolved somehow. There is little of Welsh’s skilful use of narrative voice or his play with structure and form. The strength of the work still lies in discrete vignettes: surreal Mrs Birchfield, the pipe-smoking West Indian witch who retains her mystique on a London estate; the discomforting street justice administered by Clarkie on an unknown woman for an unknown crime; Uncle Oscar’s account of a fight in the factory canteen:

Ah look down, an si mi breakfas dat ah pay mi big two pounds fah, scatta hall ova di table. Den ah ot burnin feelin ina mi groin mek mi bite mi lip, as di tea dash wey pun mi trousers. Ah gravelly cockney voice seh, ‘Ah tol yah dere was sombody sittin dere.’ Di voice wuz cumin from ah yellah, twist an chip up teet, liver-lipped, fish-face, renkin, rasclaatt, Eas-End rent-ah-bwoy. E wuz obviously di baas. E wuz younga dan me but me still hactive. Ah look pun mi bacon ah lie ina pool ah tea pyn di floor, den pun im hugly face, ah jus get vex, an roll up mi lef fis an lick im cross im nose bridge.

BLAM!

A few good tunes don’t make an album, and stringing these sketches together in a conventional thriller doesn’t do them justice. Q stumbles clumsily over traditional literary devices, and is at his worst when Clarkie pauses to reflect (‘my life was being torn apart like a piece of paper’). Deadmeat is most enjoyable when neither narrator nor reader is allowed time to think; in this sense, too, the work is most representative of the music that forms its backdrop.

Drum’n’bass is more than a backdrop for China Miéville’s King Rat; it is essential to the plot. The hero, Saul, suffers wrongful arrest for his father’s murder, and is sprung from the cells by King Rat, a peculiar character who claims to be his uncle and explains to Saul that he is not 100 per cent human after all, but half rat: eating rotting food scavenged from rubbish bins soon restores him to his proper nature, and in no time he is scuttling over the roofs and through the sewers of London. Meanwhile, his friend Natasha, a drum’n’bass artiste, is approached by a flute-playing stranger who provides for her tracks the treble she had always had such trouble getting right. It soon transpires that the stranger is the Pied Piper, not-so-fresh from Hamelin (and presumably no relation of the House DJ who goes by the same name). Rather than the abused and vengeful genius that Browning portrays with some sympathy, Miéville’s Piper is simply a narcissistic sadist who is bent on destroying King Rat because he managed to escape him in Germany all those years ago (he’s the one who got away in Browning’s poem). King Rat in turn needs to destroy the Piper in order to win back the respect of his rodent subjects who have despised him ever since his Teutonic defeat. His allies are Anansi and Loplop, anthropomorphic chiefs of the spiders and birds respectively. This motley crew of shabby comic-book not-so-superheroes are vaguely reminiscent of the devil’s cronies in The Master and Margarita. With his flute, the Piper can control only one kind of animal at a time, because he can only play one tune at a time. Saul, being a hybrid, is untouchable: the rat in him will ignore man-pipes, the man in him will ignore rat-pipes. And this is where Natasha’s music enters the Piper’s evil scheme: he can lay down several flute tracks at once, so that at last the whole world will dance to his tune. However, he has underestimated the holistic Saul, who is more than the sum of his hybrid halves: as he puts it, ‘one plus one equals one, motherfucker.’ The two tunes that should enthral him do not harmonise, ‘the flutes jarred with each other,’ and the jarring brings him out of his trance. By concentrating on the bass and the drums, he can break the reductionist Piper’s spell and good can triumph.

For the novel to work, it is essential that the reader is given some feeling for the power of the music, and anyone who knows their drum’n’bass will have a considerable advantage, though some of the description, particularly of Natasha’s composition process, is excellent: ‘She was proud of that static, had created it by finding a station on shortwave and then just missing it, so that the peaks and troughs of the crackling could have been voices, eager to make contact, and failing ... or they could have just been static.’ Somewhat less convincing is the all-conquering power of the Piper’s music. The Browning poem concentrates on the rats’ gut reaction, providing the music in the rhythm of the verse:

I heard a sound as of scraping tripe,
And putting apples, wondrous ripe,
Into a cider-press’s gripe:
And a moving away of pickle-tub-boards,
And a leaving ajar of conserve-cupboards,
And a drawing the corks of train-oil-flasks,
And a breaking the hoops of butter-casks:

Miéville’s modernisation, as delivered by King Rat, is only partially successful:

Suddenly I could hear something: a body scraping tripe from a bowl, a huge bowl. I could see it! I heard apples tumbling into a press, and my Plates started moving. I could hear someone leaving cupboards ajar, and I knew the jigger had been sprung on the Devil’s own pantry ... the door was wide open, and I could fair sniff the scran inside, and I had to find it, and I had to eat it all.

Rewriting Browning is Miéville’s most formidable undertaking. A close second, on a par with the attempt to render music in language, is his writing about the supernatural. There are illustrious precedents for such modern myth-making, including Swift and Bulgakov: but they were writing satire, which Miéville insists that he is not. At one point, Saul meets a homeless girl called Deborah.

   ‘Let me tell you about rats,’ he said. ‘Rats do nothing. All day. They eat any old crap they can find, run around pissing against walls, they shag occasionally – or so I’m led to believe – and they fight over who gets to sleep in which patch of sewer. Sure, they think they’re the reason the world was invented. But they’re nothing.’

   ‘Sounds like people!’ said Deborah and laughed delightedly as if she had said something clever. She repeated it.

   ‘They’re nothing like people,’ Saul said quietly. ‘That’s a tired old myth.’

But if so, why bother to anthropomorphise them? Saul could be wrong were it not for the fact that Deborah has been dismissed as stupid for such a suggestion.

Another crucial attribute of Bulgakov’s gloriously realised demons is that they are extremely funny, and Koroviev and Behemoth’s casual silliness makes them all the more sinister. The characters in King Rat behave so earnestly that they are sometimes ridiculous. By making a necrophiliac funny, Welsh turns our disgust back on us. We are repelled not merely by what is, after all, just a fiction, but by ourselves for finding such depravity amusing. Similarly, the acts of brutality committed by the narrator of the second Ecstasy story, ‘Fortune’s Always Hiding: A Corporate Drug Romance’, are all the more horrifying because in a sense we have endorsed them by virtue of the sympathy we feel for the character. The Piper in King Rat is neither funny nor sympathetic, and his acts of violence are too excessive (and humanly impossible) to be genuinely disturbing.

There is a cartoon element to King Rat and its superhuman acrobatics: as they fight in the Westbourae Park bus terminus (a good location), Saul and the Piper dive through bus window after bus window, lacerating themselves horribly but carrying on regardless. In fact the book reads throughout like a graphic novel without the pictures – which is no doubt the intention. Just before the dénouement, King Rat appears in the empty window-frame of a derelict building: ‘He crouched, his left arm dangling down between his legs, his head lowered towards his knees. Seeing him, Saul thought of a comic-book hero: Batman or Daredevil. Silhouetted in the ruined window, King Rat looked like a scene-setting frame at the start of an epic graphic novel.’ Miéville has apparently worked as an illustrator and comic-strip artist, and I can’t help thinking his story would be more effective as an animated film, to be projected onto warehouse walls while a live DJ mixes drum’n’bass at thought-quenching volumes. Despite flashes of good writing – ‘That night he had oozed in and out of sleep’; ‘Saul walked knee-deep in the dead’ – King Rat is defeated as a novel by the sheer scale of its ambition. In the rawer form of wordless animation, however, with a live accompaniment of thundering jungle, who knows.

[*] Vintage, 276 pp., £5.99, 0 099 77331 7.