Civil servant and footballer Carol Birch on a novel with glimpses of quaint loonies
In the city's east quarter a hopeless underclass endures rats, filth, a nd the regular raids of vicious gangs
Saturday 17 December 1994
There's a kind of schizophrenia about this uneasy, uneven novel. We are in an England of mills and moors, yet our narrator, raised in a once great cotton city now in grim decline, speaks slick Americanese: "Heck," he says, kicking a football around beneath the suspicious eyes of the neighbourhood kids, "I could have been good. I could have boarded that subway tram with a one-way ticket to somewhere. If only the rest of my dumb life was lived from the mountaintop like this."
Harry Angel wanted to be a footballer, but ended up a civil servant. He visits his father in a sanatorium peopled with quaint loonies, grows rare pukka berries in his apartment, muses cynically on life in the elevators and corridors of a City Hall seething with corruption. Ambitious council leader Corwen Lintock receives guidance from Jesus Christ, who meets with him weekly in the benighted park. A body is exhumed. Someone is slashing animals in the zoo. In the city's east quarter a hopeless underclass endures rats, filth, and the regular raids of vicious gangs looking for "kurs" - scapegoats for all the city's ills. Something is rotten in this anomalous state.
The analogy with contemporary life is clear. But Harry Angel was once Harni Zelenewycz, son of Poles who fled "the production of human bonemeal" in Europe during the war. Through his memories and his mother's diaries, revealed piecemeal throughout the far superior second half of the book, the analogy is taken further: the denizens of the east quarter are obliged to bear a yellow stamp on all documents; the houses of suspected kurs are daubed with lime mulch; a cur- few is announced.
This is a science fiction vision, a peculiar hybrid of England and America where culture is dead, alienation is near total and betrayal is the order of the day. Harry wonders of a colleague "whether his heart beat blood". He observes a brave good man ledaway by the security men: "There were no thoughts in my head. Just a big blocking zero.'' What might not occur when man is so desensitised? And indeed it becomes clear as the city's tercentenary celebrations approach that some abomination looms. The city must be cleansed. A wall is erected between the east quarter and the rest. The weeding out of infiltrating kurs becomes a TV game show.
The ending is pure Cuckoo's Nest and herein lies the main flaw in this novel: there are so many nods towards other writers. Paul Wilson's influences show through like multiple exposures on a film. But he is fluent and skilful and the book is full of snappy soundbites and bizarre and vivid imagery. From a seeming mishmash of repetitive phrases and unappealing characters he brings harmony, progressively knitting up the disparate threads. Because of this and because of the movement from cold cleverness to emotion, it takes some time to engage the reader.
Late in the action we find that Harry Angel's heart does indeed beat blood. His fall from grace is a rebellion into the beginnings of human warmth.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 2 How to turn off/stop 'seen by' on Facebook: Disable it to make your chats seem less passive aggressive
- 3 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 4 'We're not heroes, just tourists': Swedish police officers on holiday stop vicious assault on New York subway
- 5 Buckingham Palace guard who attacked passers-by in 'most most violent piece of CCTV footage' police officer had seen walks free
MasterChef, TV review: The final climaxed in a frenzy of herbs and hyperbole
Male student sues Columbia University for 'gender-based harassment' after alleged 'Mattress Performance' rape victim Emma Sulkowicz went public with claims
MasterChef 2015: Simon Wood named winner
Black Mass trailer: Johnny Depp might have started making good films again
London Marathon: Best running songs from Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to 'Uptown Funk'
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Katie Hopkins on LBC: Listen to caller taking The Sun columnist to task over migrant comments
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
Rupert Murdoch berated Sun journalists for not doing enough to attack Ed Miliband and stop him winning the general election