Like It Was & Is, Part 2

MacKenzie Warren reviews Luke Brown’s Theft

This is part two of a two-part essay on new novels about the state of present-day Britain. The first part discusses Tim Etchells’ Endland.
Luke Brown, Theft.
And Other Stories, £11.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

By comparison to Endland, Luke Brown’s Theft is an almost antithetical beast. In fact, it’s dizzying to read the two books back-to-back while considering that they share a publisher. Whereas Endland is absolutely fragmented — every story, every scene, and nearly every sentence is a shard of an incomplete whole — Theft prizes swift action, stylistic polish, graceful narrative movements. Where Endland’s characters are really just caricatures, horrid and unbelievable, Theft invests in pathos and three-dimensionality; and where Endland is contorted by its own rage and despair, its bitterness and vitriol, Theft is more nuanced, more guarded, if still pessimistic, in its assessment of what ails today’s Britain. It’s also wry and knowing in its approach to the novel of socio-political commentary. Its narrator is an aficionado of nineteenth century literature, and, in a telling exchange with his flatmate, he laments his lacklustre love life in the tone of an Austen aristocrat. Although his flatmate chides him, “It’s not the nineteenth century”, he retorts: “It’s not not the nineteenth century either”. Well, then, Theft is not not a nineteenth century novel. That being so, what is it? It might best be described as a novel of the present, dressed in twentieth century aesthetics, with a hope of revitalising the disposition of nineteenth century liberalism for our febrile political moment.

To be fair, beyond its references to Dickens and the Brontë sisters, there are some technical ways in which Theft is indebted to the nineteenth century novel. Foremost among these is its intricate arrangement of characters representing various social and economic strata with conflicting interests. Its narrator is Paul, a thirtysomething part-time bookseller and occasional writer. Although he now lives in London, Paul and his sister Amy are originally from Lancashire. Although, growing up, they lived in a relatively deprived part of the country, they enjoyed relatively privileged adolescences as the children of middle-class professionals. Although Paul struggles with renting a room in a city sharehouse, he and Amy, now orphans, have inherited their family home from their parents, making them property owners. Although Paul is a property owner, regional inequalities make the house an almost worthless asset for someone anchored to the south of England. And although he clearly sees both the opportunities and the misfortunes that have brought him to his current impasse — single, nearly middle-aged, not gainfully employed — Amy will have no truck with being a prisoner of fate: she is pregnant, planning a life of independence, and has built up a property portfolio as an amateur developer. All those althoughs are important. They reflect Paul’s multivalent position in a range of demographic categories: regional, generational, socio-economic. By way of this multivalence, Theft is able to construct a partial cross-section of contemporary Britain using a limited cast of characters.

Of course this cross-section expands as other characters enter the picture, although they, too, are multivalent in a way that allows Theft to keep its cast reined in. The narrative proper revolves around Paul’s relationship with an alluring young novelist named Emily. Emily has left behind her own modest background for a more opulent life with an older man, Andrew, in upscale Holland Park. Andrew is an historian and public intellectual of some renown, and it is through him that Paul meets Sophie, Andrew’s university-age daughter, together with her friend Rochi. Naturally, sexual tension abounds. Will Emily cheat on Andrew with Paul? Will Paul sleep with Sophie, betraying his friendship with Andrew? Sometimes, but surprisingly infrequently, this tension evolves into sexual activity, so that Theft reads much like a version of Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends (2016) centred around older millennials rather than undergraduates. But more abundant than its sexual escapades are the complications of its characters’ movements between demographic categories. Despite her ideological commitment to Marxism, Sophie cleaves to her haute-bourgeois entitlements. Rochi’s family’s wealth sets her apart from peers with comparable immigrant backgrounds, and Emily’s literary successes don’t relieve her of the fear that she is guilty of both class betrayal and artistic self-debasement. In the charged interactions between these few characters, Theft expands the scale of its initial demographic cross-section, enlarging a socio-economic snapshot into a panorama.

There are other ways, too, in which Theft follows the nineteenth century playbook. It is replete with Wildean wit and repartee — when Paul’s flatmate tells him, “Your problems will not be solved by a woman”, he quips: “My problematic lack of a woman would be” — and the prose in general is crisp and vivacious, a little sardonic and a little satirical. The novel also carefully calibrates the conflicts between its characters, and the conflict within each of them, to make them pulse with moral potency. What of its moral outlook? Boilerplate Guardian editorial, unsurprising for a narrator of Paul’s bent: Britain has been debased by intergenerational exploitation, as millennials have been shafted by a variety of amoral Boomers: buy-to-let landlords, beneficiaries of the gig economy, and Brexiters. While it’s true that the narrative is sparked by literal thievery, when Paul steals one of Andrew’s books from the shop he works in, the novel repeatedly gestures towards a more nebulous type of theft, an existential type. This is the intergenerational theft of prospects, of social mobility, of security, and of hope — specifically the hope that, for thirtysomething millennials like Paul, one’s remaining years needn’t all be fed to a life of precarity.

Where Theft is least impressive is in its efforts to anchor dramatisations of these concerns in real-world settings. Probably in order to avoid awkward exposition, Brown ends up relying on a sort of Zoopla shorthand to indicate characters’ relative prosperity, name-dropping London suburbs as signifiers of accumulated wealth and presumptive stability. Readers are simply expected to know what it means, socio-economically and sometimes politically, for a person to live in Clapham rather than Mayfair, or in Hackney, or to have moved into Dalston fifteen years ago; or, indeed, for Rochi to say that her family lives in Kilburn, only to have Sophie correct her by pointing out that her house isn’t really in Kilburn. And, along similar lines, Brown opts for a form of verisimilitude that sometimes looks like a collage of newspaper headlines. It’s not enough that the narrative plays out against the backdrop of the Brexit referendum of 2016, complete with references to specific events like Boris Johnson’s backing for the Leave campaign. Some characters also end up re-enacting actual lives from the daily news: Paul’s ex gives birth in her car while working as an Uber driver, emulating the Lyft driver who did the same thing, and Sophie’s travails are reminiscent of a range of tabloid stories about pseudo-celebrities. While all of these qualities make Theft very contemporary, even urgent, they also make it feel a bit over-determined, especially for a novel with a down-to-earth premise that doesn’t need to earn plausibility.

But where Theft shines brightest is precisely where Endland goes dark: in its openness to equivocation, to representing “how it was & is” without pretending to have any real answers about why things are the way they are or, for that matter, how to respond to them. Paul encapsulates this openness when he breaks his first-person narration for a moment, perhaps to address the reader directly or else to address the culture at large. As his colleague, Leo, latches onto him and embarks on a monologue, he has this to say:

I’m a sponge for this sort of oration; men and women are always explaining things to me. [Leo is] saying something about Israel. I know I’ll agree with him, but not enough for his liking. He is so certain about everything. You’re all so certain.

Who, exactly, is implicated in that “you”? It includes, at minimum, all the other characters in the novel. Andrew makes waves as a metropolitan Remain campaigner who flatly disregards any reasons that regional voters might have for using the Brexit referendum to upset the status quo. Sophie lectures Paul on gender dynamics in working-class communities, righteously dismissing his anecdotes about growing up in one of those communities. Amy buys, renovates, and flips properties without any misgivings about the ethics of her behaviour, or its broader socio-economic impact, even as her brother bears the brunt of the housing affordability crisis. Nobody seems to slow down long enough to truly consider whether or not they’re doing the right thing at any given moment, or to consider whether they even have any idea what the right thing might be. Everyone steamrolls their way through the world, determining a direction to move in and then charging ahead at full speed. None of them allow themselves what is, for Paul, the only honest response to the conditions of the culture we live in: confusion, from which there follows ambivalence — or, again, multivalence — about any possibility of commitment to any course of action.

This situation plays out in interesting ways in Theft. They’re interesting because they’re uncommon, and also because they’re uncharacteristically hopeful for a book that otherwise flirts with hopelessness. The situation looks something like this. Ours is an age of political atomisation, and among the misshapen outgrowths of this atomisation are the certainties of our culture — certainties about who people are and how they behave. To dig deeper: there exists a wealth of socio-economic data which can calculate the probabilities of various demographic political leanings — data that is disseminated, in part, via the cultural reach of social media algorithms — and yet these probabilities lead us astray in daily life. People employ demographic generalisations drawn from data sets to make judgments of others in face-to-face interactions, but because the data is not totalising, and in any case can only calculate probabilities, any individual person is bound to evade one or another data point.

The scene of Paul’s first encounter with Sophie offers a stark illustration of this problem. Paul intrudes on a private political discussion between Sophie and Rochi. When Sophie brings Paul into the conversation and presses him on the subject of “male on female violence being statistically high in poor communities”, she implicitly judges him a misogynist because he is a man from a poor community. When he replies to her with individual case studies rather than broad statistical measures, sharing stories about the lives of other men he knew during his boyhood up north, she berates him for not clearly particularising the circumstances and for trying to present “an exception for everything” — in other words, for offering flesh-and-blood outliers to statistically-supported demographic probabilities. But human lives, as lived, are always statistical exceptions in some measure, on some score. It would be an exceptionally rare individual who actualises every probability from every demographic category into which they might be placed. Yet we can’t see this if we go about our days relying primarily on data to inform our raw impressions of other people — not least because, in doing so, each of us risks limiting our own horizon of possibilities.

Paul senses this last limitation, and repeatedly points to it. Sometimes he points to it in jest, for self-deprecation: he jokes that, once evicted from his sharehouse, he’ll have no choice but to “[m]arry a sensible woman from the Home Counties”, and, when pressed on where he’ll find her, he says, “There’s this thing called Guardian Soulmates?” Underneath his joviality, though, there is real concern about how closely his individual trajectory might track his demographic probabilities, simply because he can’t conceive of alternative ways to be:

I have always worried that I am destined to become my father. I am like him a white male from the north of England, small town, moribund, working class-cum-middle class, with books on the shelves, schooled in low aspiration in lessons and high aspiration at home, a reader, an autodidact, a would-be escapee.

There is a list somewhere of secondary-school English teachers with my name waiting to be added. If my father’s hadn’t been there already, if I hadn’t seen two graves filled, that’s exactly where I would be, and my life might have been all the better for it.

But Paul isn’t a teacher, and doesn’t become one. Nor does Rochi necessarily hold her demographically probable opinions on trickle-down economics. Nor does Emily exhibit the class condescension suggested by her current socio-economic status, especially in matters of sex. Nor does Tony, an acquaintance of Paul’s, accept any part of the identity he might be expected to hold as an underprivileged black man from northeast London. As Paul learns from Tony’s brother, Tony has begun populating his Facebook page with

videos about the problem with Islam and feminists and Jeremy Corbyn and the Guardian. He was all in favour of Brexit, and Donald Trump’s election campaign, and this was regarded by some people as such a strange look for a black man that he was frequently accused online of being a white supremacist, hiding behind the profile photo of a black man.

Tony’s beliefs are sincerely held, if inculcated by propaganda, and the more he is expected to conform to his own demographic probabilities, the more determined he is to escape them. Whatever one may think of his individuality, he is an individual and he will not be contained in a data set or reduced to data points.

So what happens when one resists, or even shakes off, the habit of orienting oneself toward others using the expedient crutch of data? Theft doesn’t answer that question, but it enacts one possibility as Paul — embodying radical uncertainty — watches the received narratives of our culture dissipate.

One of these narratives holds that people, especially millennials, can be nice without being acquiescent to their own disadvantage. Although Paul initially affects an air of niceness, and appears to have done so for a long time, he comes to see that his conciliatory attitude and his wit are, at best, coping mechanisms for his loss of hope, and, at worst, fig leaves for his inability to assert his own self-worth: “I had maintained a positive attitude for the last ten years and it had kept me afloat”, he says. “But no longer. I could feel myself shifting to a new way of seeing things” — a more sceptical way, with more empowered effects.

At the same time, another narrative holds that Paul’s interests are inextricably, irresolvably at odds with those of the generations above him, and he also breaks with the absolutism of this notion. “By we I refer to [the booksellers’] customers, our milieu, not to me and my friends”, he says, distinguishing himself from an upwardly mobile clientele whose members support the Remain campaign because they benefit economically from the cheap labour of EU migrants. But then, he admits, he and his friends “do not feel the distance we probably should from our wealthier associates. … We secretly hope that we are down-at-heel members of the same group; we suspect our interests are aligned; we may become like them one day. We. Me. Who am I kidding?” But, despite their economic incompatibility, the popular successes of the Leave campaign end up uniting these divided parties and, importantly, they lead Paul to cast his lot with his generational adversaries: “Though tense, the atmosphere in the shop has even become a bit happier than usual. People are animated. They sense the approach of something they won’t like; it’s exciting.” Because there are no convincing answers readily available to any problem in everyday life, there is no single-value position to be taken on any given issue. Everything, for Paul, is a half-measure, and taking half-measures is the most authentic, most humble way to be.

In a roundabout way, then, Theft wants to present a vision of civic commonality for the twenty-first century. This would be a commonality defined not by the menacing presence of a mutual enemy, but by the day-to-day, person-to-person, face-to-face negation of the zero-sum divisions that our culture supposes are encoded in demographic data, and by a sloughing off of the prefab identities that data sets would confer on each of us. The positing of this strain of civic commonality — which must be worked upon, laboured over, nurtured in the fine grains of momentary social experiences — is what makes Theft finally so different to Endland. The roots of each book are tangled in the soil of similar cultural concerns, concerns about the elite exploitation and degradation of the politically disenfranchised, but while Endland accepts the status quo wholesale and exacerbates the worst of it, Theft encourages us to acknowledge it, all the better to lift our gaze and look beyond it in our daily doings. Brown’s novel doesn’t simply make a plea for greater humanity in civic life, for more civil interactions at street level; it also lives its humanity — it is temperamentally humane — in its efforts to rescue human vulnerabilities from the moral certitude we swim in. If it is less aesthetically experimental than Endland, it is also not so beholden to the tyranny of an absolutist political outlook. It’s more open and more free — more at ease with its own being, so as to offer its readers the liberty of responding to it provisionally, or partially, or even contradictorily, true to the multivalent state from which it speaks.

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.