Friday 13 June 2008

Gleefully wretched

The Isle of Dogs, by Daniel Davies (Serpent's Tail)

I’ll be blunt: The Isle of Dogs, debut novel from Daniel Davies, former British Museum curator (they’re keen on this, the publishers), is atrociously written. In the epilogue the author claims the story is based on that of a real man he met in hospital whilst recovering from a ‘happy slapping’ style assault. This man, who he could barely see because ‘the ward was badly lit and I was groggy from the morphine’, told him he used to be a ‘high-flying media professional’ who gave it all up to pursue an ‘alternative lifestyle’ -  as the title implies, the practice of voyeuristic group-sex known as dogging. The epilogue speculates he was murdered shortly after the events outlined. As a narrative device, it is the equivalent of a torch held beneath the face while telling a horror story that concludes, ‘the call was coming from inside the house!’.

It’s not new, of course: novel publishers and authors have always gone to great lengths to prove the authenticity of their fiction. Neither is the practice of dogging particularly shocking: as Mark Simpson has pointed out, it is simply an extension of the gay cruising popular before the homosexual act was even legalised, already immortalised in literature by Edmund White, Frank O’Hara and Alan Hollinghurst.

Some pedigree to live up to then, and Davies comes woefully short. Like many contemporary writers, he aspires to the cool nihilistic detachment of Michel Houellebecq: the main character, Jeremy Shepherd, wears Patrick Cox, listens to Radiohead, reads Darrieussecq, and has sex with sixtysomething educated middle class couples in Vauxhall Astras at dogging meets he has arranged using hotmail.

I’ve never read Houellebeq, since if he’s anything like some of his imitators (Adam Thirlwell, Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal), he sounds awful. Lord knows, when Politics was published amidst much hot-air four years ago, I never thought I would be so mean to describe something as ‘sub-Thirlwell’, but here we are.

There’s something gleefully wretched about The Isle of Dogs. From its hoary gags about the provinces (‘it was never bombed in the war…The Luftwaffe droned over it and simply thought – Nah!’), the pompous pseudo-frankness of the sex (‘I feel the delicious, familiar ache in my groin – pain and pleasure in perfect equilibrium…there are so few human pleasures to compare’), the smug little asides (‘I hope you weren’t shocked by the crudity of the dialogue’) and piss-pot social observation (‘I’ve never minded them [offices]...to have created an environment that’s so homogenous the world over is an extraordinary achievement’) Davies comes at you, latex-clad penis erect, a surly expression on his face, jazz-hands open wide.

It’s a shame, because the central idea that the omnipresence of surveillance cameras and boredom of wealthy, educated, and isolated Westerners turns everyone into performers and makes them take pointless self-destructive risks, isn’t a bad one. But when it’s offset by ‘what are we coming to’ depictions of the thuggish white working class and a sickeningly sentimentalised and victimised Iraqi refugee (who used to be an architect! and now fixes photocopiers!) you start to wonder if the happy-slappers had a point.

I could go on. The Isle of Dogs is filled with such a dazzling array of mock-edgy clichés and desperate attempts at being clef-ish that it takes on its own strange poetry of rottenness. But then Davies does something halfway through which threw me utterly, so subtle it’s difficult to be sure whether it’s intentional. Protagonist and narrator Shepherd says he was motivated to drop his successful and soulless media life (as an editor of a men’s lifestyle mag) by an ‘ontological echo’ he suddenly developed, a ‘heightened self-consciousness’ that never departed ‘even at moments normally associated with loss of selfhood (I am unclipping a bra…I am about to have an orgasm)’ and so on. He says that until then his life. ‘like most people’s, had been a first person narrative’ but now it had developed this ‘strange, extraneous…third person narrative’.

At first I took it to be sloppiness. But Cambridge-educated Davies was a newspaper sub-editor. Surely he would’ve noticed that ‘I am unclipping a bra’ is still first person narrative, even if an unwelcome self-consciousness? This turns the novel on its head. Shepherd – a crushing bore who still lives with his parents, intellectualising quick fucks with strangers as existential events – is so utterly self-absorbed that he thinks he’s talking about others when really all he’s doing is talking about himself. 
Once you realise this, The Isle of Dogs becomes a brilliantly savage parody of a whole generation of hyper-educated, middle class, liberal Westerners, intent on navel-gazing and so shorn of any sense of political or intellectual direction that they can only sneer at everyone else’s apathy, conformity or brutishness. Davies takes the chav-bashers, the bleeding hearts, the downsizers, the anti-capitalists and shows them for what they really are: a bunch of dull voyeuristic wankers.

Whether he genuinely meant to do this I can’t be entirely sure: there aren’t enough clues to indicate if there’s a genuinely subversive mindset at work and he’s doing it with a very straight face. Certainly, even if Davies is an arch satirist he’s marred by a sloppy technique which is likely to alienate the audience as much as it appeals. Toby Litt compares Davies to JG Ballard, and, like much of this novel, the comparison reveals more than it intends: as Thomas Jones argued in his review of Miracles of Life, Ballard’s Crash is a better idea than a novel. But if we should take the kindest approach to a first-time novelist: that is, not patronising them by assuming it is thinly-veiled autobiography, then The Isle of Dogs could be a ragged masterpiece. I doubt it, but I suppose dogging is all about the triumph of hope over expectation.


Fiction

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