Reviewed by David Harris
Trying to sum up this book, and North’s writing, in a discussion with a friend on Twitter recently, I said that she is a remarkable writer, doing extraordinary things. There’s a sense in which case I ought perhaps to stop there because I find that – like many of the books I enjoy most – it’s hard to say a more. A book can take you like that. The reading catches you so strongly that you can’t uncouple and analyse it.
But I want to say more because I want to persuade you, my readers (yes, both of you) to try this book. In doing that I’ll assume you haven’t read North’s work (although… why wouldn’t you have…) and try to explain why it grabs me so much.
First, there’s her language. More than any other writer I currently read, North is disassembling and reconstructing English as she goes along. Her books are full of half completed sentences, implied and finished in the reader’s head rather than on the page. Sometimes, that is to catch the roughness and jumble of actually spoken language but sometimes it’s…
It’s hard to give an example because the way the words works is intimately wired into their layout on the page. Spaces, blank half lines, gaps, all matter. It must have been sheer murder to type because the shape is important, this isn’t “content” that an e-reader can crunch or MS Word repaginate. So I’m afraid that if I try and quote some the blog sprites will munge it up and lose the effect. But try this (I have removed a character’s name to avoid a spoiler)
The police had an inventory of items removed from [ ]’s flat
toothbrush hairbrush shoes bedside cup
splatter evidence blood evidence fingerprints DNA not that
A confession has been received, and given the low estimate value of [ ]’s death, it is not considered necessary at this time to run any more tests on…
Reading the book, the cumulative effect is almost theatrical, almost one of dance. The words are choreographed, organised, creating shape quite outside the literal meaning. And the literal meaning itself isn’t the literal meaning, if that isn’t too daft, the suggestiveness of the language doing more than that. Honestly I could drive myself round and round in circles trying to describe this, but you just have to read this, you really do. They’re beautiful – both the meaning you take and also the sheer verve, the brilliance, with which North makes her words sing and dance.
If that was all, the book might be interesting but no more. It isn’t all, though. There is a thrilling and angry story in this book. Set in the near future (maybe decades from now – global warming in in evidence through rising sea levels, but technology hasn’t moved on much) this is a nightmarish world of rampant corporatism. Outsourcing totally out of control, the country is being devoured by the ever-present Company. Not only does it carry out most of the functions of Government, it buys and sponsors whole towns – we hear of Shawford by Budgetfood, the hometown of Theo Miller, our sort-of hero. We hear of how everything is now a matter of money, crime settled by the computation of an “indemnity” to be paid by the perpetrator. We hear how those who can’t afford the indemnity are sent to the “patty line” to make restitution. We hear how, impossible to obtain ID being required to vote, the country has slipped out of being a democracy.
The “patties”, mentioned in passing to begin with, occupy more and more of the focus of this story as the story reveals how their cheap labour is hollowing out the whole economy, leaving communities abandoned – outside the comfortable enclaves patrolled by the Company police – and whole swathes of the population marginalised, able only to express their despair by howling with rage in the night.
It’s a nightmarish, dystopian vision, hard at times to bear – there is a market for everything, we’re told, and any offences committed in driving those markets are easily wiped out if the Company will pay the indemnity – but, like the most hard-edged, disturbing destinies, I’d venture that there is nothing described here that hasn’t actually happened somewhere, sometime. I certainly found it scarily plausible.
Through this broken world, Theo takes a journey, on foot and by canal boat (the latter belonging to Neila, the most truly likeable characters here). North is cagey, to begin with, about where he’s going and why, and indeed she dices Theo’s story and tells it in thin slices, moving back and forward: it takes till almost the end of the book to work out what order things might have happened in, so I won’t say anything more here because spoilers.
Who is Theo? He’s an investigator with the Criminal Audit Office, one of the few remaining parts of the Government, and his role is to compute the price of crimes so that the appropriate indemnity can be levied and the patty line keep moving. And, if you were wondering, 84K is the price of a life. (Though I think that combined with the prominence in the book of the “19 Committee” there’s also an allusion to another book in which individuals have become part of the machine). In the course of his work, Theo crosses paths with an old friend who knows a secret that could ruin him.
She wants something, and that drives the story in a satisfyingly thriller-y way – but behind this is a story of lives ruined, by a pitiless, profit-maximising system, yes, but also by more ordinary, human quirks and failures. Many of the behaviours exposed here – the sexism enabled and abetted by wealth and privilege, the greed, the seeing others as things to be used and then thrown out, the cowardice, the refusal, 20 years before, to see the way things were going – are not of course troubling new things to be found in a grim future but features of our world, now, things only held in check – if they are held in check – by fragile social norms. North’s book is a scary warning, akin to Swift or Orwell, of where all that might lead.
Unlike North’s recent books (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Touch, The End of the Day) there is nothing straightforwardly fantastical here, unless one takes the almost prophetic anger of The End of the Day, dialled up in this book to 11, as fulfilling that role. Yes, the timeline is tricksy, and to a degree, the story is punctuated by Neila’s use of Tarot cards, but the world of 84K is probably too grim to be redeemed by a protagonist who explores successive different timelines or is forgotten when out of sight. Indeed, its grimness is the point – the “thing” about 84K is that future, beckoning us to, oh-so-gradually, give ourselves up to its marketing and its economic efficiency.
Put simply, this book just blew my mind. A remarkable writer, doing extraordinary things, and I think this is her best book yet. I could say a lot more about it but I only really want to urge you to read this book.
David blogs at Blue Book Balloon. A former physicist, he is married to a vicar and lives by a village green sometimes used to film Midsomer Murders, but has, against the odds, survived so far.
Claire North, 84K (Orion, 2018) ISBN 9780356507378,464pp., hardback.
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