Like It Was & Is, Part 1

MacKenzie Warren reviews Tim Etchells’ Endland

Tim Etchells, Endland.
And Other Stories, £11.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

Tim Etchells’ Endland opens with an introduction by Jarvis Cocker, the longtime frontman of the band Pulp. There’s something strange about the presence of a commentary by the likes of Cocker — it reads like a slap on the back for a pal at his local pub — and Cocker’s takeaway message is even stranger than the fact of his inclusion. He describes the stories in Endland as “the opposite of nostalgia”, attuned to the political-economic-cultural crisis of present-day Britain: “‘Endland’ is where we are right now”, he says. Then he recommends the collection as “a bitter medicine” that “tells it like it was & is”, but he undercuts himself when he ends with this backhanded compliment: “I respect this book — but I never want to read it again.” Having read Endland, though, I know exactly how he feels.

Endland has charted a circuitous route to publication. It contains thirty-nine stories set in a version of England in which the country’s every fault is exaggerated to the point of cataclysm. Endland is “a messy place”, as Etchells puts it in an author’s note: “at once a capitalist free-for-all, an anarchistic bedlam, a post-apocalypse retro-medieval nightmare, a central European civil war zone and some kind of twisted fairy tale housing estate in Rotherham or Doncaster”. Etchells began exploring this all-too-recognisable dystopia back in the 1990s, when he published a collection of the first eighteen stories reprinted here. After his initial publisher folded and Endland Stories: Or Bad Lives fell out of print, he continued “expanding and reinventing the precarious landscape of Endland”, and for the last fifteen years he has been writing additional “postcards from hell” upon invitation. But whose invitation? Etchells has a background as a visual artist and playwright, and most of the work he completed by invitation was commissioned for various art projects and performance pieces. It appears now in print along with the original Endland Stories and half-a-dozen new entries, although in many places it still reads like avant-garde theatre. The result is exhaustive, the “definitive Endland volume”, and, at almost four hundred pages, it’s exhausting as well: too much of a bad thing, a wasteland parched of real rewards.

To be fair, a good number of readers are unlikely to make it very far into the bulk of Endland, and Etchells wastes no time in giving them their marching orders. Here is the opening of a prefatory note, written in the narrative voice that dominates the volume:

Kings, lords, liars, goal-hangers, killers, psychics and prostitutes,

Whether or not these stories bear any relation to life as it is actual lived in Endland (sic) is not my problem and good riddance to all those what prefer to read abt truly good, lucky and nice people — you won’t like this crap at all.

Bear in mind it is not a book for idiots or time-wasters but many of them are wrote about in it. But let no one deny that it is a good laugh to hear about all the various kinds of mischief, curfews, wickedness, pixilation, indolence, rent fraud, roadblocks and general fcuking Hoopla! that went on in that place back (?) when Xmas really meant something.

All the fundamental pieces of the Endland aesthetic are right here in these few lines, all the signature elements of everything that follows: the “(sic)” after “Endland”, but not after an earlier error; the shorthand of “abt”; the syntactical misconstruction of “are wrote”; the deliberate typos and ad hoc capitalisation; the erratic punctuation and parenthetical comments; the nonsensical list items (“pixilation”) and the half-twee, half-delirious non sequitur that serves as a grace note. There are other signature elements that appear a little later on: the “©” that follows apparent neologisms, the wanton use of all-caps and “etc”, characters with names like Natalie Gorgeous and German Fokker, entire paragraphs printed in strikethrough. Still and all, those first few serve often enough as Etchells’ go-to textual tricks, the gimmicks that enliven his crippled syntax and stunted narratives. If they look like the sort of thing that tickles your fancy, and if your hunger for them is nigh on insatiable, you’ll probably be satisfied with the rest of the book. If not, not.

That’s not to blatantly disparage Endland. Nor is it to dismiss the whole thing out of hand. The collection has its high points. ‘Carmen by Bizet’ follows a hapless young woman into court, then into prison, after she becomes entranced by the “electronic noise of ‘night’” on the other end of her telephone. It ends with a breakdown of text that apes the breakdown of her sanity: the final sections disintegrate into one-word utterances, empty koan-like declarations, binary ones and zeroes, and a barcode. ‘The Chapter’ is a ferociously insane story that takes the form of a membership list of Endland’s Hells Angels: “Foot & Mouth, Drainpipe, Henna, Peroxide, Pointy Tits, Albatross”, and so on, unbroken, for twelve pages. It’s a gimmicky piece of prose, but it’s never dull. And there are occasional bright spots when Etchells lands a proper gag, as with a children’s toy called “MY LITTLE VOID”, and also when he makes room for fantastical elements, especially the miserable gods of Endland with names like Porridge, Hand-Job, Risotto, Herpes — and Thor. Endland can at times be funny, if in a despairing way; it elicits tortured laughter, with a wince.

But far more often it’s just a sordid book, even gleefully squalid, and reading it feels like wading through a cesspit of try-hard grunginess. In one especially disgusting story, ‘Chaikin/Twins’, a man buys two sixteen-year-old twin sisters, “‘real virgins’ ©”, and then, when they are “‘of age’”, he torments them, psychologically and sexually. One of them he treads like a princess, complete with maidservants to answer her daily needs and desires. The other he subjects to “every kind of sexual act, perversion, demand and activity to which his mind and body were capable”, so that the girl is

repeatedly sodomised, whipped, prostituted, made to crawl naked on her belly through the house, made to suck the servants cocks, used as a table for the eating off of food, made to stand for long hour half dressed and genitals exposed in the window etc etc and all kind of things he had read about in a book or in twisted recess of his ‘mind’.

All right, then. ‘Chaikin/Twins’ is a sadistic story and its sadism unfolds in some detail. Is the detail gratuitous? I think so. It would have been fine for Etchells to withhold from listing the abuser’s acts in their particulars, given that the particulars serve no ends beyond the grotesque exaggeration that is already baked into the narrative premise. And yet there they are, together with an undercurrent of playful malevolence, as the unerring list of sexual abuse is coupled with a consistently erroneous treatment of the abuser’s identity. The man is named as “Chaikin” in the title and a few places throughout the story, but he is also “Chaken”, “Charkin”, “Cherkin”, “Chailkin”, and “Chailkan”. The feigned carelessness that leads to the misspelling of his name stands in contrast to the care with which the narrator itemises his mistreatment of the enslaved girl, and the contrast throws a shadow over the story’s moral purpose. I found it difficult to stomach, and to keep the cap on my red pen.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a problem if the persecution of the twins were a one-off, but young women are degraded time and time again in Endland. Although men do suffer their share of punishments — random, karmic, and societal — it’s notable that the traumas inflicted on women are frequently inflicted by men. The cumulative effect of Endland’s gendered injustices is both exhausting and infuriating, and finally enervating: I began to rage against the book as I read on, until I crossed a threshold and felt increasingly inclined just to put it down unfinished. Joanne. Charlene. Maxine. Frankie’s girl. Their lives are shitscapes of beheadings, bombings, and blowjobs. It takes either stamina or wilful desensitisation, or both, to get to ‘BureauGrotesque’, where a man named Scarton stands by and watches a woman die in agony, right before his eyes, and ‘Long Fainting/Try Saving Again’, where Gina, having lost her family, suffers yet more itemised torments when she takes a job in a pub “run by a cruel Ogre”:

Night after night she had to worked her fingers into bones, wipe floor w hair, sluice out toilet from flood water and rats, manage out the worst of the smack-heads and the morons, cooked bacon Snaks if needed for Ogre anytime in the fryer at 2000 degrees, kept a brite smile © on her face and generally listened to customers if they were talking to her etc keeping track of who was potentially a danger of attack, robbery, rape and worse. As each dawn approached G stood exhausted with skin stripped bare in the naked strip light of the pub bathroom, bar closed and strippers sent home, lamenting her fate and dead lookz and not much lolz left in her eyes.

No, there’s no law to say that Etchells has a moral obligation to offer his female characters redemption. Nor is he bound to dignify them in any way. But when it comes to the mistreatment of women, Endland takes two antipodal stances at the same time — the place develops an atmosphere of rampant misogyny while the narrator adopts a tone that is consistently, exhaustingly flippant — and these make the book seem as if it intends for readers to find amusement in its cartoonish degradations. I didn’t. That said, I don’t think it’s prudish of me to say these things. Really, the sources of my disenchantment with Endland aren’t ethical so much as political and aesthetic. I’m still with Jarvis Cocker: “I respect this book — but I never want to read it again.” I appreciate literary experimentation and I’m grateful to Etchells for committing himself to it, but a willingness to experiment doesn’t guarantee of impressive results and in this case it leads to outright failure.

The novel is a political failure because it has no meaningful involvement in politics. I’m not even sure that it views politics as a site of meaningful activity. True, it pretends to an interest in politics, but only insofar as it name-checks the evils of Thatcherism, austerity, Brexit, et al: the drudgery of the dole queue, the despair of the food bank, the decrepitude of council housing. But because it glosses over the systemic poisoning of British political institutions, and dismisses nose-to-the-grindstone experiences of political disenfranchisement, and fails to imagine potential alternatives to the political status quo, its own politics are a wan concoction: a swill of reactionary positioning against the tide of events, cultural complaint without commitment to a vision of better things, and mere lip service to the burning concerns of those on the political left.

The political divestment of literary fiction isn’t necessarily a problem, in and of itself, but there’s little reward to the experience of reading if it isn’t offset by some kind of aesthetic achievement, and Endland disappoints in that respect as well. Even though it aims for something outside the norms of contemporary literature, it doesn’t aim for much outside its own prefatory note, so that the bulk of the book hits the same targets over and over again with deadening repetition. If aesthetic sophistication derives from evident control over the patterning of artistic elements — patterning via repetition, juxtaposition, alternation, and so on — then Endland is largely bereft of it. Granting the sole exception of the naming of the gods, the same elements resurface over and over again, story after story after story, with no effective deviation from Endland’s baseline ambitions, no novelty, no elaboration of effect, no meaningful relation to one another. As a result, reading the book comes to feel like a literary variant on water torture: drip… drip… drip… drip… for hundreds of pages at a stretch.

As he brings his author’s note to a close, Etchells names the four “fictional modes” he hoped to explore when he wrote Endland: “folk story, pub anecdote, parable and condensed movie plot”. Where Endland is at its best, it does indeed work in the mode of the folk story — or else in the mode of the urban legend, which is a folk story in a metropolitan setting. But parables? I don’t see many of those in the book. And condensed movie plots? Either they’re not condensed enough, as stories exhibit few restraints on rambling self-indulgence, or they’re over-constrained, not open to the complications that allow plots to generate interest. What about the pub anecdote? That one seems to me like the best fit for Endland. Most of the stories collected here really do resemble the slurred, off-colour verbiage of some random perched on a barstool. God bless you if a yarn from a person like that is your idea of a good craic. I can’t help but see such folk as pub bores: their “anecdotes” are better mumbled into a pint of bitter than preserved for posterity in the pages of a book. Respect for the effort, however sincere, doesn’t always warrant revisiting the experience.

This is part one of a two-part essay on new novels about the state of present-day Britain. The second part discusses Luke Brown’s Theft.

About MacKenzie Warren

MacKenzie Warren read English at Oriel College, Oxford. She now lives in Bristol where she works as a freelance copywriter and social policy advisor for the local authority.