Carnivore, Jonathan Lyon, HR, HarperCollins (London, 2017)
The following review was published by Standpoint magazine here in September 2017. It is the first time that I have reviewed a book by a former student.
It is a fact that a high proportion of unreliable narrators of novels are intelligent, arrogant, badly-behaved, young males. The protagonists of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers, and Sebastian Faulks’s Engleby, tumble to mind. A fair proportion of their authors have the same characteristics, suggesting that their protagonists are wish-fulfilling free agents in the universe of fiction, who are nonetheless held at some respectable distance. I would say that the narrator of Jonathan Lyon’s 2017 debut novel Carnivore is another such, but for the fact that Leander – young, reckless, near-heartless, poetry-fuelled and drugs-saturated – is not flagged as unreliable. He is a hipster hero, self-consciously of the ‘millennial’ generation that has dragged the twitching carcass of post-modernism into the present in order to set it up in (qualified) judgment on vaguely-identified evils.
Leander, who is fond of opining, at one point states that ‘Spoilers are for disposable stories’; ‘if the ending only affects you once, then it’s a weak ending’. So here goes.
Like D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love and many another modernist novel, Carnivore emphasises space over time. Its three hundred pages cover only half a week, whilst oscillating between a handful of London locations. The structure is cyclical: Leander takes drugs, creates havoc and/or experiences violence, travels by car from one venue to another, changes his clothes, and repeats. But these cycles form a spiral. Although for about half the novel I doubted it, there is a plot. Leander is a bisexual male prostitute, estranged from his parents but close to an older mother-figure, Dawn. The latter unwittingly becomes involved with a gangster whose mob traffics people to England for farmwork and sex. Leander desultorily if riskily pursues this mob, whilst trying to emotionally wound his on-off boyfriend Francis, who is Dawn’s biological son. Though he is beaten and raped more than once, Leander eventually secures the suicide of the villain, and blows up most of the latter’s sidekicks in a Brixton bar. By this point he has decided that he loves Francis after all, and the novel ends with their reconciliation.
The first point to make is that this plot is not physically possible. A real Leander would have died from his wounds and/or drugs well before the novel’s few days are over, meaning that he neatly combines in himself two of Mel Gibson’s most famous roles: the eponymous crazed pursuer of violent criminals in Mad Max’s post-apocalyptic Melbourne, and the Jesus of The Passion of the Christ, who would have died from his scourging long before reaching Golgotha. The gangster plot and the ‘love’ plot are linked by Leander’s sociopathic sado-masochism: both his wish to wound, and to be wounded, are purportedly explained by the fact that he (like his creator) has for around a decade suffered from a combination of chronic pain and fatigue which the medical profession has failed to diagnose let alone cure. Leander seeks drugs, power, pain, play, performance and the risk of death, in order to achieve at least temporary dissociation from this condition. Rather like Judith Rashleigh in L.S. Hilton’s Maestra (also reviewed in these pages), he rampages the world with a selfishness presented as the response to a deep personal injury.
He explains his disease to his friends and readers repeatedly: ‘That pain needed harder drugs than the ones allowed by shops or doctors – it needed the heroin Dawn had promised me – and doctors had failed me long ago, anyway, as they had failed everyone else with my illness. […] And that made me cruel, probably. I wanted to make other people feel what I had to feel […] Chronic pain isn’t interesting – people can’t relate to it.’ The last point, of course, is a problem for the novel – although nobody can say that it doesn’t try its hardest to make its readers relate, if not to the pain, than to Leander’s modes of escaping it.
Thus we share in Leander’s often charmingly-brilliant synaesthetic hallucinations. When he has taken ketamine at an exhibition, ‘The row of photographs I was trying to focus on gave way to a plough of stars – driven by an ox down a terrace of moon-mansions – which each imploded as it passed.’ When the villain Kimber lifts up Leander, ‘A reel of white tape spun up my spine. Spots of green light dappled the air – ladybrids hatched in my hair.’ And when he has knocked Kimber out, ‘The air zipped itself open and zipped itself back up, adjusting to the absence of Kimber’s voice.’ The description of Leander finally falling unconscious begs comparison with the death of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which in Constance Garnett’s translation reads: ‘And the light by which she had read the book filled with troubles, falsehoods, sorrow, and evil, flared up more brightly than ever before, lighted up for her all that had been in darkness, flickered, began to grow dim, and was quenched forever.’
This is Leander’s near-death:
My sight shrank. I curled into a protective ball, but there was nothing to protect – I wasn’t a body anymore. I was glint above a cliff of almonds, drifting upwards into blackness. My heart’s last beat was tolled by the bell – and then it stopped, and the bell widened into an eyeball – and I sped into it – into a pupil that let only the light of the bell inside – until I was at the heart of the eyeball – and it blinked, and the glint was gone.
This writing is controlled. The narrator is writing sober and knows exactly what he is doing, both in conveying his previous states of consciousness, and in reflecting on his agency and its relationship to meaning. At one point Leander tells his mirror reflection: ‘Nihilism is for fragile heterosexuals. Meaninglessness isn’t meaningless. I can give meanings to whatever I want […] chaos can be shaped into meanings by will. So I can contrive arcs, reversals, and endings until I have revenged my own fatigue’. In the exercise of his will to be artist of his own life, he takes ‘method acting’ to the extreme of turning up half-dead at a film studio in order to play the part of a bruised begger. (The director films him anyway, later to be scolded by Leander that her industry is ‘the same’ as people-trafficking, in its exploitation of young bodies.) His rejection of static meaning is exemplified when he tells the director the story of his namesake, and reflects: ‘I don’t know what I am. I’m Hero and Leander and anti-Hero and anti-Leander and neither, depending on the lighting’. At the exhibition he aligns himself Lady Macbeth, having met three women who ressemble witches; but in contrast to her, ‘I want to get away with it. In my version, she’d devastate the kingdom and then just wander off.’
Contrary to appearances, it emerges that Leander has not done an English degree at Oxford, but he does know and rely deeply on canonical authors. He intends to use his earnings from a particularly violent sex session to buy an edition of Emily Dickinson which reproduces her punctuation accurately. He recites seven lines of the corking Wallace Stevens poem ‘Esthétique du Mal’ to his lover. When particularly drugged, he explains to a Costcutter bag why ‘Poetry isn’t dead’; on the contrary, ‘Poetry has won’, since chat threads and news feeds ‘aren’t prose’:
‘We think in mosaics. All those failed late-modernist epics – with their collages and cut-ups and parodies – were just guessing at what was about to happen – the internet and wifi and phones – that altered our mode of writing – into poetry. Poetry has won. And so the secrets of the sublime perhaps moved to prose – because prose has been abandoned.’
I retched onto the stone floor, spinning in the chair.
‘That’s not how I think’, the Costcutter bag said.
Again, one is reminded of Women in Love, which ends with Birkin telling his wife why he needs another, close relationship with a man: ‘“You can’t have it, because it’s false, impossible,” she said. “I don’t believe that,” he answered.’ Usually in Carnivore, as with Lawrence’s opinionated heroes, Leander’s agonist is not an inanimate object, but a woman. Dawn tells him that: ‘Being pretty made you lazy’. At times he falters in his repudiation of identity and love. When he tells the director Iris that ‘I want to be beaten on my own terms […] I want a psychological equal’, she counters: ‘I think you are in love with him. […] You’ve found Francis. […] And you’re trying to convince me – and really more trying to convince yourself – that you’re the lonely villain and he means nothing.’ Lawrence’s Ursula similarly tells Birkin, who has denied that he wants love, ‘I think you are very silly. I think you want to tell me you love me, and you go all this way round to do it.’ Leander even has in common with Birkin the fact that he is physically slight, but capable of beating heavier men in a fight.
But whereas Ursula is emphatically and unambiguously female, Iris, it turns out, was until recently a man. The fact that she has had an even harder time of youthful self-fashioning than the myalgia-afflicted Leander draws even him out of self-absorbtion for a moment. Compared to the issue of transgenderism, the other political issues raised in Carnivore hold his and the novel’s attention hardly at all. After Leander has likened the chief gangster to Browning’s demon in ‘Childe Rowland to the dark tower came’, Dawn remonstrates: ‘No – shut up. I can’t deal with your poem bullshit right now. […] I wish he was trapped in a fucking tower. He don’t just sell drugs, Leander, listen – he sells women, he fucking sells them and he sells men too’ – but to little effect. Leander pursues the gang out of a desire for pain and risk and possibly to avenge Dawn’s death, not to stop them trafficking unnamed children from Afghanistan, Turkey, the Czech Republic, and Poland. Other issues are raised momentarily and perfunctorily: the Thames is described as ‘London’s guilty conscience, the spine of an empire.’ An upmarket block of flats is described as ‘Sanitised, depersonalised, touch-sensitive, cool, and motion-controlled, a futurism that was really just conservatism – or maybe even just decadence – unaffordable as it was to the young and poor – a symptom of an era about to end, and which would end with inner London cleansed of all but its aspiration, and its debt.’ But then we are back with the action.
Occasionally there is evidence of unnecessary editorial intervention in the direction of clarity. Lyon’s prose has travelled a long way from the impressionism of the unpublished 2013 novel Absence; it has reached a highly-marketable clarity, and need not be pushed further into such explanations as ‘Next – according to this fantasia my mind was tracing as it drifted further from the kitchen – this mixture was stuffed into the pig’s washed intestines and boiled.’ But the fact that the novel is marketable – and the more important fact that the man can write – come as a relief to me. Having taught Lyon as an undergraduate, having seen him shuffle pyjama-clad and Dorian-Grayish in and out of his tutorials, occasionally substituting a short story for his weekly essay, and then disappear Isherwood-like to Berlin with a university English prize in tow – his is a career that I would like to succeed.
He might do well to revisit Lawrence’s 1923 essay ‘Surgery for the Novel – Or a Bomb’, which describes the tendency of the contemporary ‘serious novel’ to be ‘self-consciousness picked into such fine bits that the bits are most of them invisible, and you have to go by smell. Through thousands and thousands of pages Mr Joyce and Miss Richardson tear themselves to pieces, strip their smallest emotions to the finest threads, till you feel you are sewed inside a wool mattress that is being slowly shaken up, and you are turning to wool along with the rest of the woollyness.’
Given that one of Lawrence’s examples is Joyce, Lyon is unlikely to take this as criticism. But Lawrence goes on: ‘One has to be self-conscious at seventeen: still a little self-conscious at twenty-seven; but if we are going it strong at thirty-seven, then it is a sign of arrested development, nothing else. And if it is still continuing at forty-seven, it is obvious senile precocity.’ Which is to say – I look forward to seeing how Lyon’s work develops as he grows older. What will produce itself when time has ittied along and he, like, settles down? ‘Youth must go, ah yes. But youth is only being in a way like it might be an animal. No, it is not just like being an animal so much as being like one of these malenky toys you viddy being sold in the streets.’ A Clockwork Orange ends when Alex wants a wife and son; Carnivore ends after Leander has apostrophised Francis: ‘I don’t believe it as a real me, or there are no real mes, but some are falser fictions than the others – and I can’t pretend to be the me that is indifferent to Dawn. I was wrong. And I can’t be indifferent to you. I was wrong. I can’t be the debonair libertine safe in my own vacuum-sealed balled. I’m leaking. And I can’t continue. Let me in.’ Yet in neither case have youthful perspectives been left entirely behind. Leander and Francis end Carnivore slipping into a post-coital ‘unshared meaningless dream’. Alex ends A Clockwork Orange ‘seeking like a mate. […] Amen. And all that cal.’ Lyon is not done with youth yet, oh my little brothers. But he’s one to watch.