Don't Misconstrue Me

Luke Brown, Theft

And Other Stories, 316pp, £11.99, ISBN 9781911508588

reviewed by Andre van Loon

Paul Wright is a thirty-something part-time bookseller and magazine writer. With self-conscious downbeat humour, Paul-as-narrator tells us how he writes two pages for a magazine called White Jesus; one about books, one about haircuts:

I set forth in Hackney and Peckham, approach strangers, and ask if I can snap a picture to feature in the London Review of Haircuts. Alongside their picture in the magazine and online I award their hairstyle between one and five pairs of scissors. . . Hair criticism is not a hard science — it is more akin to the interpretation of dreams . . . I type a witty summary of what the person attached to the haircut is like, a précis of their secrets and longings, in fifteen to twenty words.

Paul lives precariously in East London, in a flatshare in which a series of people sleep in the living room, in each other's beds and sometimes disappear for months. We're in 2016, and our not-quite-down-and-out hero is intellectually anti-capitalist, politically anti-Brexit, emotionally adrift and morally, well...

As the novel progresses, Paul tells us about his sister Amy, their Lancashire childhood, his grief for his recently deceased mother, and his belief that London isn't a terrible place, but

a friendly city . . . often heartbreakingly so. . . There are lots of us out there, looking for each other, who think a new person is the most exciting thing. Not thing: don't purposely misconstrue me. Sentient being. Equal. Superior.

Before long, the 'sentient beings' who have the misfortune of being seen by Paul as his 'superiors' come into the story: well-regarded author Emily Nardini, her fashionable historian boyfriend Andrew Lancaster, and the latter's rebellious daughter Sophie.

Slowly but surely, and as meticulously as a Dalston Tom Ripley, Paul befriends each of them. The novel, gradually, as though Paul has all the time in the world, turns from being certain and informative into an overwhelming question: what exactly is the endgame? If the story could be summed up by a single image, it would be by Paul's phrase on being surprised by Emily in a bar: ‘I turned around and saw her notice something in my face before I hid it from her.’

It is no small literary delight that we, the Reader, are as cautiously shut off from Paul's inner self throughout more than 300 pages of the latter's narration. Even though we feel we're being told everything, we notice hints of other feelings, other thoughts.

At the level of style, Theft is a mix of the ridiculous (Paul's narration of turning up at Emily's house for the first time, still drunk from the night before and full of prosaic anxiety, is particularly well-achieved), the acerbic (Paul's word fights with Sophie, the radical leftist), the sentimental (notably whenever the narration turns to childhood and parents) and the voyeuristic (who is sleeping with whom). There are several well-put lines: ‘You certainly believe the press releases you write for yourself’; ‘Wouldn't you rather be punished than forgotten?’; ‘I'm actually a failed artist who sells T-shirts at Brick Lane market’; ‘I'm no one. My name's Paul.’

It is a shame, however, that the lasting stylistic impression is one of reticence. Paul-as-narrator seems keen to be seen as balanced, not one to rock the boat, straining for a type of Britishness that is still best summed up by Arthur Balfour's line: ‘Nothing matters very much and few things matter at all.’ The obvious tension between that sentiment and Paul's actual dark story could have led to richer stylistic ironies and character confrontations − even though the ones that do exist are memorable and ring true.

Closely linked to the stylistic sense of reticence is a recurring atmosphere of Paul's spiritual ennui. That kind of feeling can be captured superbly, as, for example, in its classic representation in Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time. But it is hard to write interestingly about a character who is bored, and for all that Paul does and attempts to do, we never quite escape the sense he is terribly tired of it all.

The most obvious thing to say about Theft is also the most problematic: this is yet another fiction about an alienated anti-hero. Paul Wright, as a literary type, has touches of Iago, the Byronic and plenty of existentialism about him: the lonely hero in a godless world, who plays with other people's lives to pass the time. But Theft doesn't feel stale, even though it treads such well-trodden ground. What exactly is it, about the human psyche and being, or the larger world, that means alienation and malevolence can be told a thousand times over, and still retain their interest? It makes me think, as a genre, of Nietzsche's abyss: the more you stare at it, the more it stares into you.

Theft portrays a Dostoevskian world in which Paul Wright is a lowly louse, an underground character, a chancer, someone to spit at his own shadow, sneer at passers-by, committing petty, nasty acts out of an undefined compulsion. What's interesting, from a literary point of view, is how well Brown writes Theft as a modern English story, with authentic references to English culture and living, that mean you don't need to know anything at all about Dostoevsky for this novel to work.

And yet Theft has a problem. For all that it compels and draws the reader in, the novel also feels like it doesn’t go far enough, as far as it could have gone. The central riddle about Paul's character, his malaise and manipulativeness, is hinted at as it unfolds, but you never get the sense of the depth of the character's full meaning, or potential meaning. In Dostoevsky, Raskolnikov achieves self-transcendence through his totally unexpected love for Sonia, and the spiritual rebirth this leads to. Not that that kind of rebirth (which Crime and Punishment only asserts in its epilogue, and which remains untold, part of the novel's afterlife) is what I think Theft could or should have done. But that kind of morally new direction, its radical difference to what went before, means Raskolnikov becomes a magnificent character, a literary type, fully rounded and distinct.

Dostoevsky started writing Crime and Punishment as a first-person narrative, before changing his mind and starting again in the third-person. In Theft, Luke Brown, as author, has been captured by — and subsumed within — his narrator, making this deeply strange story seem less significant and less powerful than it could have been, if its protagonist had been differentiated by the Other.
Andre van Loon is a freelance literary critic, specialising in new British and American novels and studies of Russian 19th- century literature.