Rome may be the Eternal City and Bombay, Maximum City, but if we take literature as our guide, London possesses a hundred names — and a good many of them unprintable. Few cities seem to attract such inspired invective; almost every writer has a pet epithet. Verlaine described it as “a flat, black bug,” Martin Amis as a “taut and meticulous” cobweb. To Hawthorne, London was a “grave,” to Jean Rhys, a “cold dark dream.” Comparisons to “cesspools” and devouring mouths abound — it “Vomits its wrecks, and still howls on for more,” wrote Shelley.
To the five Londoners at the heart of Guy Gunaratne’s debut novel, “In Our Mad and Furious City,” the city is “the fury” and “the menace.” These characters — a group of young men and their parents — live in and around council estates. They all have an “elsewhere in their blood” and an intimate knowledge of a history of colonial violence. When a fanatical recent convert to Islam hacks an off-duty soldier to death in the street (echoing the 2013 murder of Lee Rigby), the young men are startled by a prickly feeling of recognition. The killer wore the same sneakers they do. He spoke the same slang. “When we saw the eyes of the black boy with the dripping blade, we felt closer to him than that soldier-boy slain in the street,” a character named Yusuf says.
Yusuf, the son of Pakistani immigrants, is doing his best to avoid the attention of local Muslim extremists hoping to recruit him. His knowledge of Islam comes mainly from Nas lyrics, and he would like to keep it that way. He is happiest at the football pitch with his mates: Ardan, a would-be rapper whose mother, Caroline, fled Northern Ireland during the Troubles; and Selvon, an obsessively disciplined athlete desperate to escape the neighborhood. Selvon’s father, Nelson — mute and wheelchair-bound — is the historical consciousness of the novel; he was part of the “Windrush generation,” the Caribbean workers enlisted to rebuild Britain after World War II.
The novel unfolds over 48 hours in a sultry and violent June. There are riots, anti-Muslim marches, attacks on immigrant-owned businesses. City walls are plastered with racist graffiti. The strains of Brexit are in the air. Reading Gunaratne’s depiction of the tight confines of the council estates, it is impossible not to think of the burning of Grenfell Tower.
“In Our Mad and Furious City” was published to acclaim in Britain, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and praised by that prize’s committee for its authenticity, its report from the “inner city.”
There’s plenty of London slang, to be sure, but it’s all garnish; the real sounds and deeper rhythms of the novel aren’t snatched from the streets but from literature. This book was incubated in a library. There is the explicit homage to Samuel Selvon, the author of “The Lonely Londoners,” an influential 1956 novel about Caribbean immigrants, and a heavy debt to Zadie Smith. You can feel gritty sediments of Irvine Welsh in the use of slang; Saul Bellow, in Gunaratne’s fondness for directly addressing the reader. Unmistakable, too, is “Mrs. Dalloway,” that great snapshot of “life; London; this moment of June,” in its presentiment of doom. From the first page, it is clear that one of these characters will be sacrificed.
But Gunaratne is a more passionate reader than he is writer. His novel is weirdly somnolent given how portentously it primes us for danger, for the burning of mosques and blood in the streets. On my first reading, I was not sure how this happened; had I missed something? Was I reading too quickly, too callously?
The problem is that novels — like cities — thrive on strange, entropic energies. Excessive planning saps something vital to their survival. And Gunaratne is a very composed, very careful writer. Although interested in the clashing voices of London, of homegrown Grime music, the book itself is as tidy and contrived as a suburb. The characters speak their subtexts and announce their motivations. The rowdiness of the city is conveyed in summary, in blunt statements — “Violence made this city”; “we were London’s scowling youth” — and only rarely staged or subverted. Nor does the carousel of alternating viewpoints serve any real purpose. We see the same scene from different perspectives, but all reinforcing a single story.
For all their “fury,” the young men of the novel feel so thinly drawn and so stubbornly on message that they remain devices; every one of their thoughts and observations goes to advance the machinery of the plot. But one character floats free — Caroline, who escaped to London from Northern Ireland as a girl. She can veer into stereotype (too many of her sentences are punctuated with “Aye”), but she has an idiom all her own, her own funny way of seeing the world. On her disastrous marriage: “When we first met, I remember thinking to myself, he’s got such nice dark hair, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.” In her daydreaming and disobedience to the narrative, she seems to possess a life of her own beyond the page — and in turn, her sections have a real pulse.
It’s a small moment, but it underscores, in a strange, rather heartbreaking way, how the flaws of this book seem very near to the point it wants to make. Freedom is fleeting for these characters. They are locked in. They do not emerge intact, as individuals. They blur, and we lose sight of them. In the end, all we see is the city.
Follow Parul Sehgal on Twitter: @parul_sehgal.
In Our Mad and Furious City
By Guy Gunaratne
278 pages. MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $16.
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