[The following contains spoilers.]
An incoming meteorite, after being presumably broken into several pieces by a botched nuclear strike, has killed billions of people throughout North America, Europe, and Australia. It is seemingly coincidental that the First World has alone supplied the venues for the apocalypse. Had the meteorite pitched in slightly sooner or later, it would have wiped out the BRIC nations, or some less consequential continents. In unscratched Asia, the meteorite is viewed as a mixed blessing. “They imagine the wars, the climate change and overpopulation. When they think of life Before, most of them are grateful.” Happily, the eradication of three continents has proved sufficient to educate an errant humankind about their ecological responsibilities. Cities are cleaner now and people “manage” their desires.
And so here is our question: is Nick Holdstock’s debut novel The Casualties, which tells the above story, an evil book? The Casualties is set mostly in Edinburgh, in the months before the penny drops. The Devil has appeared frequently throughout this city’s history and often in its literature, from the demoniacal majesty of Gil-Martin in James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) to the devilry which is investigated by Ian Rankin’s modern-day Inspector Rebus. I am going to be arguing that in The Casualties the Devil is abroad in a new guise. This is not nineteenth or twentieth century evil, the evil which had agitated Calvinists or arisen from a gritty urban underworld. For all of its newfangled strangeness, this is an evil of extraordinary purity. Its centrality to The Casualties makes this a significant novel and particularly a significant contribution to literary depictions of Edinburgh.
But let me make one thing clear: The Casualties is a phenomenal stylistic achievement, and such is its achievement that its depraved morality comes to seem like only a mildly questionable part of its aesthetic. I suppose, though, that if the Devil was not charming then he would not be such a player. The book is written with a lawyer’s mastery of loopholes and it leaves no trail which can be followed from its evil all the way back to Holdstock’s door. Everything is attributable only to its dodgy narrator. At the same time, The Casualties does nothing to reassure you that it might be a knowing satire. It is rather like a slippery hollow box, with nowhere amongst its surfaces for you to get a fingernail in, crack it open, and discover how much evil is really inside
Published in the US, The Casualties has not yet been reviewed in any London newspaper. Despite its Scottish setting, it was also overlooked by the Herald and the Scotsman. This is all rather unnerving and one might have a sense of important infrastructure malfunctioning. It was admittedly published in August, before the Fringe, which is probably not the best time to launch a book. I would like to be able to report that The Casualties was published on the same day that the meteorite strikes in its story (August 2nd), but it is two days out. With this, it is over to the blogs, for a sizeable number of reviews which barely make it beyond a passable description of the novel. Chic Toronto, for example, claims that the book is set in “a small Scottish town” (it is set in a street in Scotland’s capital city). It is strange how these book-review blogs, which are typically manned voluntarily by book lovers, have come to conform in what they write, and how they write it, to the point of resembling corporate press releases.
At first this book might not be clamouring for your attention. You have surely yawned your way around countless books and movies about the apocalypse. One of the outcomes of CGI has been to make the end of the world as drearily overfamiliar as a soap opera based in a residential street. The Casualties, of course, lays on both.
In assuming the responsibility to describe present-day Edinburgh to implied future readers, this novel groans with explanation, until it is haunted by an odd echo of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. With its near-future Edinburgh setting, The Casualties might appear to be obviously influenced by the Scottish sci-fi novels of Ken MacLeod. Yet any similarity between these two writers did not occur to me until after I had finished the book. Moreover, The Casualties is a distinctly un-Scottish novel and if the setting was never divulged, you might conclude that it was set in an English market town. The novel also looks autobiographical to an extent which is ominous. Write-what-you-know is one of the traditional identifiers of juvenile writing. The Casualties relates stories of people who are observed in a local park. It is chiefly set in a second-hand bookshop and, sure enough, Holdstock has worked in a second-hand bookshop. When its hero Sam pays a visit to the whore Trudy, and some vivid observational writing ensues, we are being dared to wonder whether Holdstock has made the same journey as his character.
So this is a difficult book to sell. If it resembles a major novel, or at least a major minor novel, it is entirely due to its prose. Still, you have to fight your way into the book, past all of its off-putting apparatus, to realise how good it is.
The Casualties lives through its details; it will dwell massively over the tiniest incidents, and each paragraph dedicates itself to building the fullest effect. If Sam is repeatedly pouring over second-hand books “with great care, anxious not to miss any ephemera,” the story of his life seems to be woven largely from pre-meteorite ephemera. Images from a “found” family photograph album are included throughout The Casualties, and these old photos come to share the same status as the reports from Sam’s neighbourhood. Both are snapshots of a lost past, which we are required to interrogate. The viewer of a group photo might mistake “a casual glance for devotion.” The reader of the anecdote about Mrs Maclean’s crystal bowl might think it only comic, but they will return to it later to be taught how to look, to grasp the complexity behind it.
The narrative is often intensely meditative, until almost seeming lost in thought, but the clarity is always as sharp as can be. After Sam is beaten up, and then drugged by his apparent rescuer, the unsteady lucidity of his consciousness provides an opportunity to showcase this novel’s prose. Nonetheless, the intended inference is wry. Sam is so mentally and physically delicate that after being smacked about a bit, his mind is apocalyptically devastated. Holdstock’s writing is like a lens which could never be focused on anything as big as a meteorite strike.
This observation is, though, not the sum of the narrative. The structure is thickly tactical and its ironies are impressively choreographed. The novel is always generous with its humour but the humour is always deployed judiciously. A good example of this is when Sam awakens after being date-raped to find a framed photograph of himself beside the bed. Any melodrama is over before it has begun and the novel is always characterised by this endearing wonkiness, the frequent deliberate landing on off-key notes.
The foremost aesthetic of this book is gentler than horror but rather more than a tense atmosphere. It is occasionally uncanny. Caitlin, a sufferer of facial eczema, is haunted by the vision of a veiled woman with a “lump on her left cheek the size of a human eyeball” who presses her face against a bus window. There is nothing unrealistic about this but it has an iciness to it which is profoundly stylish. Later, Caitlin finds herself on a kind of impromptu date with the dishy Sam, who she secretly dreams about, when she is taunted by children for looking like a “zombie.” Caitlin is swearing wildly, the parents are unapologetic, Sam vomits – it is a scene of intense, swirling instability, in which everybody’s actions are unpredictable.
The tweeness of the setting, whether real or exaggerated, is so out of place that it is soon also uncanny. The very name of Comely Bank somehow perfectly encapsulates Edinburgh’s middle-class village mentality, its comical distress at being a capital city. Here it is again, all so wearingly familiar:
And so the residents of Comely Bank bought from the local shops … They were also familiar with their fellow shoppers, whom they smiled at, or even spoke to, whilst standing in a queue. This was far from common practice… most enjoyed the meetings. They produced a sense of community absent elsewhere in the city.
We might have wandered into an officially endorsed Big Society novel. The story, when it is in Edinburgh, almost never leaves this community’s boundaries. Even so, there is some good mockery of the middle-class toy shops which you find in places such as Comely Bank when Sinead is sacked for “masturbating” behind the counter of a “gallery” art shop. All of these shops are, in effect, a sort of masturbation.
By inhabiting Comely Bank so completely, The Casualties seems to sweep up all and not just some of Edinburgh. The book’s picture of the city becomes keener and more authentic than the conventionally more “iconic” representations within modern novels by Irvine Welsh and Ian Rankin. But this cloying quaintness is not a picture of Edinburgh which many of its residents will be pleased to recognise. These days it is akin to Edinburgh’s “nae knickers,” an embarrassing little secret.
Comely Bank’s knickers still let in the chill. The whole place is a sink of modern alienation. Far from achieving a village peace, its residents are rude, prying, scheming, and in unending despair. If John Betjeman was on the spot, he would probably declare the imminent meteorite to be “friendly.” And we here encounter what looks like this book’s most pointed moral: if people cannot be happy in the “exceptional” community of Comely Bank, during its “halcyon days,” well they cannot be happy anywhere in a consumerist society. Our society is on trial, albeit posthumously, and Comely Bank has been put forward by the defence as the most persuasive evidence. But “guilty!” rings throughout the entire story.
Alone amongst Comely Bank’s residents, Alasdair is most conscious of this collective failure. He observes the constant shopping and acquirement, sanctimoniously and from underneath the bridge where he lives. He despairs over shoppers who were “excited, thrilled with discovery; they had finally solved the momentous question of what to put on the chest of drawers.” Yet he discovers the same fire burning within his own breast and so he is forced to smash to pieces a collection of place mats which he has fallen in love with. For a while he forms a kind of comedy duo with Sam. Alasdair has lost his children and Sam has been abandoned by his parents; the first leads to a hatred of acquisitiveness, the second to a nosey parker’s desire to acquire, or even buy, information about random people on the street. Both characters get beaten up for their pains. Alasdair is doubtlessly vaporised at the end of the story, but his prophetic, apocalyptic mindset will live on, along with “his” photograph album. It will heavily influence the narrator and his narrative; it had preceded and will follow on from the apocalypse.
A lot of Alasdair’s battle is fought over the characters of Toby and Sinead. The former is a dangerously obese young man who needs constant supervision else he pig himself to kingdom come. He is a fantastic figure, rather like a contestant from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, more of an allegory of greed than a realistic sufferer of obesity. It is strenuously implied that there is a drop of Toby’s self-destructiveness in every consumer. Sinead, his supposed carer, is a nymphomaniac whose behaviour is equally impulsive. Her character is equally allegorical:
In some respects her situation was that of the world writ small… few people were prepared to change the way they lived… If they couldn’t eat bananas or fly on jet planes, they would rather die. Their problem was the same as Sinead’s: They simply lacked the will.
The people of the future resemble a liberal middle-class which is finally rid of the consumerist underclass. Not just a considerable proportion of humanity has gone with the wind, but also important aspects of the Enlightenment belief in human progress and supremacy. The narrator imagines that, “Any thoughts of stopping another cataclysm are only science fiction” (it is actually more implausible that humanity would have originally failed to detect or intercept the meteorite). Elsewhere, the narrator comments on Sam’s bookshop that, “however many thousands the charity raised, it could not solve the problem: people.”
The narrator’s query about an interventionist god comes to highlight the devilry which is all around him. Why, he asks, “if there was some entity or force capable of such a thing… had they let things deteriorate to the point where only the deaths of billions of people would effect meaningful change?” Instead of sending a meteorite, the narrator reasons, this power could have acted to “remove our ability to digest meat, stop air travel for several decades, eradicate corporations, form a nonhierarchical world government, and mix the populations of different countries so thoroughly that there were almost no places with dominant ethnic groups…”
The destruction of the innocent island of Socotra is given as a reason why any benign intervention is unlikely, but the irony is here at its richest. Holdstock is the only detectable interventionist in this story and he has maliciously destroyed Socotra because his character Caitlin is on holiday there. He had previously depicted Caitlin fantasising about holidaying with Sam in the Mediterranean: a clever device which teases us with the vision of her placed safely out of the asteroid’s proximity. Later, however, he squashes her like an insect. The whole book is effectively a countdown, with chapter titles such as “Five, Four” adding to the impending sense of an author’s toys being smashed.
During the novel’s climax, each paragraph alternates between 2017 and 2077. When sustained this is rather like strobe lighting, stunning but irritating, and yet such is its brilliance that the book’s evil, or rather its politics, ebbs here. We are frozen aghast at the hundreds of tiny delays between Sam and his Salvation, but it has been already, tactically, revealed that he is a Survivor. We are therefore left only with a wave of inconsequential unease or a shimmering uncanniness, this book’s forte.
I was bemused to learn somewhat late into my research that Holdstock’s second novel will be set in the Middle Ages and that it will be narrated by the Devil. I am not sure if this constitutes a backhanded confirmation of my thesis. It will be interesting to see whether Satan can in person trump The Casualties’ wickedness.