You might think that Adam Thirlwell, as an author of self-absorbed sex comedies, had no obvious credentials for writing about the Arab Spring (the title of his first novel, Politics, was a joke). But according to the narrator of his avant-gardeish new novella Kapow!, his lack of knowledge about the subject is what makes the project so interesting and avant-gardeish. At least I assume this is the case, since we hear enough about it. The book is constructed in the Richard Rogers style, with all the functional background stuff displayed ostentatiously on the outside. There is a Thirlwellesque narrator, a writer who lives in East London, drinks a lot of coffee, and has recently ‘got back into the practice of dope’. He wants to tell us ‘this tale of an ordinary guy called Rustam’, an Uzbek taxi driver, exiled from his own country and caught up in a revolution (which seems to be in Egypt, though the local detail is deliberately non-specific and at times contradictory). But he also wants to tell us how he got hold of the story, how he’s constructing it, and why that’s a good idea.
The action is set last year: ‘As you will recall, folks, it seemed like everywhere they were starting revolutions, or trying … Everywhere I looked I saw the cartoon sounds for violence: Wham!, for instance, or Kapow!’ One night in London, the narrator meets Faryaq, another exiled taxi driver, who takes him from a falafel bar on the Edgware Road to ‘some hipster lesbian joint in Dalston’. (Ethnic food and fashionable North-East London locations are recurring themes.) Faryaq is a ‘nickelodeon of stories’, but the most important one is about his brother Mouloud, who was saved by Rustam after being beaten up by a baltagiya gang – thugs paid by the regime to target protesters. Mouloud has a friend and sidekick called Ahmad, who falls for Rustam’s wife, Nigora, in the course of the protests.
Listening to Faryaq’s story, the narrator begins ‘to wonder if I could in some way construct my own Arabic novel. Or at least a pulp novelette, a zoom of pure joyfulness.’ Obviously, there are obstacles: he grew up in the ‘green London suburbs’, and all his knowledge, he worries, is ‘basically novels or movies’; besides, he doesn’t want to be ‘topical’. But he feels liberated in his ‘doped yet caffeinated state’; he’s ‘having fun’ with an ‘astronautical perspective’: ‘My theory was that language was a trampoline which pushed you everywhere, even inside out, even into an apartment block I had never visited in a country I didn’t really know.’ So ‘I began to imagine new forms, like pull-out sentences, and multiple highspeed changes in direction. I imagined concertina pages of stories, pasted pictures. And why not?’
Kapow!, then, explains its own form as it goes. It’s a short novella/novelette, nicely presented by Visual Editions (mission statement: ‘we think that books should be as visually interesting as the stories they tell’). On the front cover is Marie Antoinette’s face, from a well-known French School portrait, turned upside down, with a large white exclamation mark cut out of it, below the word ‘Kapow’ in a small font. On the back cover there’s a circular photograph of a rioter kicking in a plate-glass window somewhere. On the first page, the main text is interrupted by a pasted-on inset panel, also upside down, about dope and coffee and burritos and YouTube clips. These cut-outs continue throughout the book, adding digressions or qualifications or lyric interludes (‘above the tower blocks towards the flyover, a last bird was clumsily trying to punch in the code of the sky’). There are also pull-out pages, into which the digressions sprawl. Some contain little concrete poems or opaque fragments: ‘A dying/B things/C thinking/And so on. You think any of those are verbal, buster? But basta.’
When Politics came out in 2003 it was bafflingly given the ‘major new voice’ treatment in some quarters. The Times called it ‘one of the funniest, most stylish and utterly original debuts in recent years’. Granta put Thirlwell, who was then in his mid-twenties, on its list of the best British novelists under forty, on the strength of a short excerpt about a blow-job. And it was, I suppose, a new voice: the voice of a moronic postgraduate, combining riffs on Mao and Mies van der Rohe with explicit sex scenes between a trio of attractive young Londoners, in a weird baby-talk register – all ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ and short, repetitive sentences. ‘And Nana and Moshe were romantic. They were romantic in their way. They loved each other. They said they loved each other. It was true.’ The novel tells a slight story about love and sexual misunderstandings, orchestrated by a heavily interventionist narrator, a self-described ‘innocent imbecile’ who guides the reader in a wry, faux-naive style from the first lines onwards:
As Moshe tried, gently, to tighten the pink fluffy handcuffs surrounding his girlfriend’s wrists, he noticed a tiny frown.
I think you are going to like Moshe. His girlfriend’s name was Nana. I think you will like her too.
How the reader reacts to Politics depends largely on his or her reaction to the voice, since so much of the usual furniture of the novel – characters you can identify with, a plot you can lose yourself in – is displaced or obscured by it. Some people found it charming. I think Adam Mars-Jones put it unanswerably in his review when he said: ‘Adam Thirlwell has simply underestimated the amount of charm needed to make good what he has subtracted from the pleasures of reading.’ And this simple mistake of arithmetic also applies to Kapow! It is approximately 50 per cent Egyptian story and 50 per cent manifesto or authorial rumination. The Egyptian material is intrinsically sketchy and the rumination isn’t interesting enough to compensate. In fact, I’d go further and say that I think it’s quite boring and annoying. And, as Thirlwell might say, I think you will too.
His style has evolved since 2003. The repetition and baby-talk have largely cleared up, while some studiedly casual David Foster Wallace-ish ‘so’s and ‘anyway’s have crept in. But there are still the perky pop-cultural asides (‘Amigos, I had my doubts’) along with the unidiomatic, vaguely Yiddishy noises, probably descended from Saul Bellow: ‘I was very adoring’; ‘Me, I kind of liked this way of putting it.’ Most important, his writing preserves its special ability to get up one’s nose. This is partly due to the strange combination of whimsy and pomposity. This is a writer, after all, who can call smoking pot ‘the practice of dope’; or, quoting Burke, can state: ‘Yes, kids, in this era of human rights, when there is no more fealty in us, plots and assassinations will be anticipated by preventive murder and preventive confiscation.’ But it’s also the mingled self-deprecation and self-regard. He talks about his ‘sad bassline of worry that I should understand the intricacies of world politics’. A few pages later, he writes: ‘At the beginning of May, Osama bin Laden was killed by the Americans in Pakistan. And once again, I personally entered the international newspapers.’
The reference here is to an article on the Arab Spring Thirlwell published in Le Monde last May. ‘Je ne suis qu’un romancier, un citoyen du monde, je ne sais rien,’ he declared, while discoursing in a grandiose fashion about the movements of world history. This is a standard Thirlwell manoeuvre. His thought bears all the baleful hallmarks of an education in English studies at the end of the last century: the half-arsed generalised scepticism (‘But lately, to be honest, I’d been thinking that this thing called I wasn’t anything at all’); the vaguely Marxist sweeping statements; the mistaking of rhetorical figures – mostly glib paradox and simplistic analogy – for coherent or interesting intellectual positions. At one point the narrator starts to worry that he’s turning his Egyptian material into the ‘usual story of sex’. He soon recovers: ‘But then I could also turn this round. Why should you be condemned to the desert of seriousness, just because you aren’t there, in the desert of the serious?’ Then there are the annoying Eng Lit stylistic tics: not just the ‘practice’ of this, but the ‘erotics’ of that, the unconvincing claims that ambiguous phenomena can be analysed ‘very precisely’.
Maybe I have been unnecessarily strident about a small book by an independent publisher which will be forgotten soon enough by an indifferent world. But it’s revealing that Thirlwell can’t go more than a couple of paragraphs without returning to the first person, and that most of his stylistic tics involve using the words ‘I’ and ‘me’. Nothing can bridge the gap between the narrator and the Arab Spring. Thirlwell writes of Mouloud that ‘his modest utopia was just a president who could stand being sassed.’ Sassed: it’s a word that betrays his total inability to think about Mubarak’s rule. When Rustam turns towards the Muslim Brotherhood during a spell in prison, it’s signalled with a cutesy riff about his beard: ‘Rustam was growing a beard, a theological beard.’ The implied parallel between the book’s formal rebellions and the events in the Middle East is silly. If you have to turn a book upside down to read it, it’s a revolution of a sort – but what sort? This is not an Arabic novel, nor a zoom of pure joyfulness. It’s just Thirlwell having fun on his trampoline.