It's a jungle out there

Jungle fever is sweeping from the dance floor to the written word. Steven Poole reports
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
There's a rumble seeping into London bookshops. Something's happening: it's loud and it's hard, and a lot of people won't like it. Boxtree publishing, previously old hands at film tie-ins and sci-fi novels, have just published Junglist, the latest in their Backstreets series, a line of "street" books about real life in the bleak 1990s city. These mesmerising warts-and-all narratives provide ample potential fodder for the bowdlerising brigade - they're brimming with drug-taking and startling violence. But hey: this stuff happens.

Backstreets writers are not concerned with literary manners, but with writing about what they see, what they live. Junglist, written by James T Kirk and Two Fingers, is the world's first "Jungle novel", and is a real headtrip. An ambitious blend of multiple narrative viewpoints and waffly metaphysical musings, it follows a posse of four young men as they spend a weekend in south London rolling up, clubbing and just shooting the breeze.

The talking is almost the most compelling aspect. Junglist rings with "found" dialogue and internal monologues of great fluency. Two Fingers, aka Andrew Green, explains: "I like the fact that you can get into someone's head and explain how they think and how stuff happens to them." And writing about the music is also writing about the life. His characters are pure Junglists, and they hate house, describing that music as peddling "a false high, a false hope", whereas "jungle's truer to humanity's real roots. It cuts away the falseness, gives you the ups and the downs, the dark and the light".

But isn't Green worried that, by co-authoring a jungle novel, he's betraying the underground spirit of his beloved music? Junglist has already been accused by Q magazine of exploitation. Green sees the problem: "I'm really divided. Do I want everyone to know about jungle, and for it to blow up and get very commercialised and then deflate, or do I want to keep it to an lite?" He counters the accusation by saying that at least he knows what he writes about: an outsider jumping on the bandwagon would really be exploitative.

"Jungle is a London thing," declares a character in the novel. This is also refreshing, in that the London we see in Backstreets books is far removed from Bloomsbury and Hampstead. This is a London readers will recognise: it's lovingly recorded but not glamorised. Here is the narrator, a 16- year-old weed entrepreneur, of Jonathan Brook's comedy-thriller, Herbsman:

"There's a lot of cool bullshit talked about Brixton but I don't see it myself. It's as though the people who live there have to keep convincing themselves the place is sweet or they'd all go crazy - and there are enough basket-cases there already, truth. They opened up the head hospital, shoved them back on the streets, and now they wander up and down the main road, muttering in a private world." (The segue here from observation to loaded political comment is typically smart.)

OK, so nobody's going to call Herbsman or Junglist good literature, but the virtues of these books - their immediacy, their energy, and their relevance - are precisely those which so many "literary" novels these days lack. As Jake Lingwood, commissioning editor for Boxtree, says: "There is a hell of a lot going on at the moment, in terms of music, clubs, street style - and it's not at all reflected in publishing. These authors don't have a great deal of experience in writing, but the raw, rough edges are what makes the novels very compelling."

That's a fact. And if some of the writing is poor, there's also an unmissable sense that here is a living language, taking on new and weird shapes from its concrete habitat. Remember Martin Amis banging on in recent interviews about how he wanted to find "the new rhythms of the street"? They're right here, Mart.

'Junglist' and 'Herbsman', £4.99 each, published by Boxtree, 18 May

Comments