'Maybe I should kill myself?'

by James Draney

Grand pronouncements on the role of the writer have always had a whiff of the antique about them. Isn’t it quaint, in the 21st century, to imbue writing with moral purpose? Of course it is. But then why write at all? This is the question that propels fiction forward. What should a writer ‘do’ for a culture; what is his or her ‘task’? Even JG Ballard, the most cynical of literary figures, took up his pen to promote his sense of social responsibility. Famously, he wrote that it’s the novelist’s duty to ‘invent the reality’ in an age saturated by grand fictions (‘mass marketing, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising’). Even as recently as 2014, this notion struck Ballard’s preeminent heir, Tom McCarthy, as something like an ethical imperative. In an ingenious essay published in the London Review of Books, McCarthy described this inventive power as fiction’s unique project. While chastising Ballard’s ‘moralism,’ McCarthy – no stranger to grand pronouncements himself – announced with confidence that ‘reality isn’t there yet; it has to be brought forth or produced; and this is the duty and stake of writing.’

Does any of this still fly today, in 2017? What is left for the writer to invent in our age of grotesque extremes? Mass marketing, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising – it’s quaint to think that these were once the demonic forces dominating all aspects of our existence. Today, when it’s impossible to distinguish conspiracy theory from news, and when a functionally illiterate reality TV star occupies the highest political office in the world, the hyper-reality of Ballard’s mid-1990s seems harmless, benign. Reality may not be there yet, as McCarthy has it, but in our age of over-invention, it’s almost as if reality will never arrive. Where writers used to invent, they now simply exaggerate.

Perhaps this crisis of invention is most evident in the new sub-genre that has emerged as a popular form over the last decade. Let’s call this sub-genre ‘soft-dystopian’ fiction. Soft-dystopian narratives tend to take place in a future that ‘eerily resembles’ our present. Society, in this near future, is organised according to a brutal economic rationality in which small coterie of financial elites dominate every aspect of political and cultural life. Central to these narratives is the looming spectre of communications technology. Digital devices figure as the lynchpin of some Faustian bargain: at the price of something like your soul (that is, your personal, physical, financial, sexual and psychological data), you connect to an infinite information channel, becoming tethered, zombie-like, to handheld computers, scrolling, clicking and swiping for all eternity. Most importantly, these soft-dystopian narratives picture a world in which digital devices convert the external world into a kind of game. Everything – dating, exercise, taste, career, diplomacy, military operations – becomes ‘virtual’, measured on an abstract plane of competition. Citizens of the First World track and quantify their sexual conquests as one would a stock portfolio; meanwhile, ‘enemy-combatants’ in the Third World are gunned down by remote controlled robots, operated by soldiers sitting comfortably in a Nevada compound, racking up kill-counts as one would in a video game.

This is the world as described to us in soft-dystopian narratives like Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (2010), Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 (2016) and – perhaps the caviar of the genre – the television show Black Mirror (2011). It’s become a truism to say that we now live in a world stranger than fiction, that these books, films and television shows no longer represent a vision of a possible future but a description of our present moment. Reality, so we think, has outpaced our wildest nightmares, making the fictions of Ballard – once considered radically estranging – read like the blandest of realisms. Literature no longer warns us of a future to come, but nor does it bring forth a new world, enticing and strange. Invention is now a dead concept. All the novelist can do is add his or her footnotes to the grand fiction in which we live. But at least they can still make us laugh.

Take Luke Kennard’s The Transition, the latest novel to describe our over-mediated, economically precarious present. Like its peers in the soft-dystopian genre, The Transition is a funny book. Kennard plays deadpan humour against the technological and economic wasteland he describes. The protagonist, Karl Temperly, is a knowledge worker in his mid-30s. He produces content for a living (‘search-engine evaluation, product reviews’). He lives with his wife, Genevieve, in a small flat in a bustling metropolitan city. He is cultured and intelligent but has few prospects. He holds an MA in the Metaphysical Poets (Donne is his favourite) and nurses a talent for writing theory-laced undergraduate essays (as a side gig, he whips off analyses of Henry James for lazy students). But his defining characteristic is not his literary taste nor his way with words but the number in his bank balance. Karl is a cool £78,000 in debt, and the number is climbing – fast.

Readers soon discover that this economic nightmare is not unique to Karl. All of England – perhaps all of the West – lives in the red. Despite the fact that Karl and Genevieve live with ‘a sense in both their minds of having made a bad decision at some critical juncture,’ they have only done as they’ve been told. They went to university, they studied hard, and now they work hard – nights, weekends and holidays – in order to cobble together life in a one-room flat, a ‘former conservatory of a Victorian semi-detached villa, a shared bathroom on each floor.’ In short, Karl and Genevieve live in a simulacrum of comfort and success. The tiny room they share is not paid for with actual money but with a series of maxed-out credit cards. Debt has become the very condition of their being. ‘Maybe I should kill myself?’ Karl muses nonchalantly when the ‘letters printed in red ink’ begin to arrive. But still, there isn’t much to complain about; Karl and Genevieve, despite their inability to scrape by, see themselves as hyper-privileged. ‘We’re still a three-per-cent leech on the side of the planet, sucking most of it dry,’ Genevieve reminds her husband.

When Karl’s credit card debt becomes a legal issue, he faces a choice: go to jail or join a new rehabilitation scheme for debtor delinquents. This scheme is the eponymous Transition, whose name implies a smooth migration from criminal to productive citizen. Participants are given living quarters (for free!), as well as the promise of high-paid careers and a down payment on a flat when they complete the programme. All Karl has to do is bring Genevieve along with him, and, viola, they will finally find the sense of success that seems well-nigh impossible in the hyper-neoliberal regime under which they live.

But ‘success’, in this case, comes at a price. Karl and Genevieve move in with two mentors, Janna and Stu, both of whom enlist the participants in a regime of self-improvement bordering on social conditioning. The Transition is quick to blame personal failings where larger economic problems are actually at fault. For example, as part of her rehabilitation, Genevieve takes up a scheme promoted by Janna and Stu called ‘recalibration.’ Here, even leisure falls under the labour of adjustment. Reading becomes self-improvement. ‘It’s even about what you read and what you watch,’ she explains to Karl. ‘It’s about what you let in. To your body and your mind.’ When Karl takes up his own physical gym schedule, he’s taught to regard it as a mode of ‘self-regulation.’ Marriage, too, undergoes a sort of reengineering. The old model of courtly love no longer works in this soft dystopia. Romantic companionship is strictly an economic partnership. Even at its most tender moments (of which there are quite a few), The Transition reminds us that sentimentality is no longer of any use to us.

But the monstrous aspects of the world Kennard paints for us can only be explained when we articulate its underlying economic logic. Janna and Stu make clear that everything – even the most banal choices of daily life – is a competition. Social life becomes beholden to the logic of business. ‘The Transition isn’t a punishment, it’s an opportunity,’ Karl and Genevieve are told. But as in Beckett, this humour quickly turns to horror. The economic/competitive logic of The Transition is taken to ludicrous extremes. The world has become a game, complete with a formal ranking system for human beings. How else to sort the ‘successes’ from the ‘failures’? It’s only fair, isn’t it? The ease with which these characters enter into this dark social contract is the most disturbing part of Kennard’s novel. The Transition is a eugenic process that barely conceals itself, one not so distant from our current economic order.

Let’s recall that the writer who first elucidated the logic, theory and structure of the present order was not Ballard, DeLillo or even Thomas Pynchon but Gilles Deleuze. Once, a long time ago, novelists invented worlds, leaving the humdrum task of mere description of the world to philosophers like Deleuze. So it’s no surprise that, in our current crisis of invention, most soft-dystopian novels – Kennard’s included – read like they were ripped from Deleuze’s oft-cited essay ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control.’ Unlike Ballard, who saw the ‘overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudo-events’ as the apotheosis of contemporary nightmare, Deleuze was keen to recognise those monstrosities as mere symptoms of a more fundamental shift: ‘If the most idiotic television game shows are so successful, it’s because they express the corporate situation with great precision.’ While the factories of the 19th century subjected individuals to a tyrannical boss, according to Deleuze, the 20th century’s corporate logic ‘constantly presents the brashest rivalry as a healthy form of emulation, an excellent motivation force that opposes individuals against one another and runs through each, dividing each within.’ Not a punishment but an opportunity.

‘Young people today strangely boast of being “motivated”. They re-request apprenticeships and permanent training.’ These are Deleuze’s words, from 1990, though they could have come straight from Kennard’s The Transition. Compare this with Janna, Karl’s main ‘mentor’ in the Transition scheme: ‘Is it a puzzle that systems contain their own rebellion? What are pistons doing if not struggling like lobsters on their way to the pot? A good system not only contains its own rebellion; a good system harnesses that rebellion and uses it to produce over eighty per cent of its energy.’ For Deleuze, the duty and stake of writing was to ‘look for new weapons’ to combat the nascent cultural logic he described. Perhaps Kennard’s The Transition presents an opportunity to re-harness ‘mere’ description as a political tool. ‘I feel that, in a sense, the writer knows nothing any longer,’ notes Ballard. Rather, like a scientist, ‘all he can do is devise various hypotheses and test them against the facts.’ Kennard’s hypotheses, as humorous as they may be, are indeed chilling.

The Transition by Luke Kennard is published by 4th Estate.