Books: The Teletubbies pop pills

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The Independent Culture
Boxy an Star

by Daren King

Abacus pounds 9.99

Read any good new "voices" lately? Odds are you have, for publishers would have us believe there are plenty around. Many a first-time author is hailed as a "startling and original new voice" or a "breathtaking" or "compelling" one. In fact, to go by the dustjackets, these "voices" are currently all over the bookshops - a screaming clamour of sound, drowning out all those other, lesser authors who have not - yet, of course - "found" theirs.

Well, though I hesitate to add to the cacophony, Daren King not only has a voice, but an entire vocal range of his own - and it's the loudest and most expressive I've read in a long time.

That doesn't mean his novel is perfect - it's not - but here is that rare and special thing: fiction that reinvents the world by putting words together in a brand new way. Risky and brave and worthwhile, has its own language - a wry, abbreviated mode of expression that is neither forced nor false, that never falters and is so easy-peasy to read (as all language should be) that it manages to feel like the Only Language - the best, the purest, the most meaningful.

The time is some hazy time in the future - not that far off perhaps, but far enough for the novel's protagonists Star and Bole to be fourth- generation drug users. "Born thru a sieve", these children - yes, check out the lead weight feeling in the pit of the stomach when you eventually discover just how old they actually are - don't go to school and don't work (except to carry "pills" up and down the country for a dealer).

They don't live with their families either, but knock around the city and each other's dingy flats going up and down on their unnatural highs and doing "licky" things to each other - things which, if the sexually insatiable Star has her way, involve Bole's "trouble monkey" and her "hairy hole".

Because they are young and because their heads are so done in - and because King is a scorchingly poetic writer - Star and Bole have an especially mesmerizing take on reality. Their method of understanding the world is similar to a four-year-old's, or a Teletubby's: they look, they struggle to translate - and make a host of benign assumptions. So Bole wonders what is going on in Star's head. "Star lookin at me. Doin a face. What looks like. She is weein. Or thinkin. She aint weein it is thinkin."

Because their minds are so warped by the pills and "spangles", everything is a big effort for Bole and Star. Just going to the toilet or getting a key in a door is a long rigmarole. They write themselves lists of "Fings waht to do & How to Do Them". like "GEt up in the mornign. not the nitgt. Have food 3 times a day ... helfy stuf is best i recken but it can be enyfin but helfy stuf is best," but still they mess up.

After sex in a train toilet, they put on each other's jeans by mistake and only notice when they start wondering why Bole's "trouble monkey" suddenly looks so big. In fact size and relativity are a constant problem for the pair. When offered a dress and asked what size she is, Star says "Same as Bole but smaller." "An her bumbum is bigger," offers Bole. "An I have got bumpies," adds Star.

And there are arguments too, the insecure bickerings and grumblings of children who are set no limits and left alone too long with adult pleasures. Bole is less "licky" than Star and just wants to "go nunnights" with his bear who is called "Poll Tax Clown" (wonderful touch!). But Star is restless and begs him to stick his "trouble monkey" in her. Later on they drink lots of "squash orange" and try to cope with Star's period by stuffing towels down her pants. Hardly surprising that at the end of a "long flipping day" Bole and Star feel they deserve a rest because "we have worked hard at bein our selfs".

The overwhelming strength of King's novel - apart from its shattering kindergarten lyricism - is that its landscape is so immaculately imagined. Every detail is alive with possibility, every futuristic nuance (right down to the plausibly hard-edged, dumbed-down cartoons the pair watch on TV) is seductively imagined. Every grain of colour and speck of nonsense sucks you in and the only problem is - nothing is happening.

And, sorry, but it is a problem. There is a frail plot of sorts, but these kids are going nowhere, doing nothing. If the book has a message it's precisely this - that the so-called pill culture is characterised above all by its stupefying monotony, its utter zomboid brainlessness. The "E" novel will surely always be a literary - and literal - dead end. Though some authors will no doubt always write fiction whose purpose is to describe the changes wrought by chemicals chucked at the brain, still these descriptions - much like other people's dreams - will rarely be other than dull, dull, dull.

That said, if I ever have to read another book about pills and "spangles", I hope it's by King. He is an exceptional writer - warm, modern, daring and oozing sweetness and beauty - and we desperately, urgently need more voices like his. When Bole describes "The mornin night sky bein a film what is cold clingin on us", you close your eyes and hold your breath. The novel may not be perfect, but that line is.