A Terrible Beauty
The huge majority of novelists who set themselves up as radicals are really anything but. It’s been observed that, with authors like Nabokov, the last literary taboos were broken, and all subsequent self-styled iconoclasts have been pushing long-ruined boundaries. The most recent such observer is Mike, the crack-smoking black sheep of the Hacklett family in Derek Turner’s second novel Displacement. Leafing through a collection of “outsider poetry,” Mike notes wryly, “Funny, ain’t it really—by having these published all you poetry plonkers become insiders, don’t you?” The literati have been turned outside-in; the establishment has become anti-establishmentarian; and the Revolution seems poised, like some ravenous Saturn, to devour its children.
Mr Turner’s first novel, Sea Changes, was widely hailed by journals across the English-speaking world, including The University Bookman. Critics lauded Mr Turner for the elegance of his prose and the sensitivity of his insights into the diverse communities Sea Changes investigated: the urban Left, rural conservatives, and desperate third-world migrants. Readers looking to praise or to blame the book for its ideology found themselves unable to do so easily—found, rather, that Mr Turner’s chief interest was to understand the anxiety, belonging (or lack thereof), and prejudice as felt uniquely by each group. In doing so, Mr Turner emerged as an invaluable relic of the realists, who felt there was something eminently beautiful in the ordinary conditions of the everyman. The pain, ugliness, and confusion of human life, when placed under the novelist’s lens, become strangely sublime. Or, in the better words of W. B. Yeats,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Mr Turner’s “terrible beauty,” the pains he takes to love the unlovable, and his calm rejection of ideologically colored worldviews are among the few truly radical literary gestures of this century thus far. In Displacement, Mr Turner continues to astound with the grace of his prose and the sincerity of his treatment of English people and the modern English nation.
We may have here the first literary treatment of free-running, or parkour as it’s better known in the United States. Parkour is a predominantly white, working-class sport inspired by military obstacle courses, which were in turn inspired by the natural fitness regimens of colonial African peoples. Its practitioners, called traceurs, develop Spiderman-like agility, scaling walls and back-flipping across the tops of tall buildings.
Against the lofty descriptions of the protagonist Martin’s death-defying stunts, Turner satirically juxtaposes the “sociological readings” of the parkour phenomenon. On one hand, we have the conservative-ish tabloid response to Martin’s antics, which are seen as an invasion of personal space and a violation of private property. On the other, we have the response of the Guardianistas, Britain’s left-wing journalist class, named after the British left-leaning newspaper, The Guardian. Sebastian, the quintessential Guardianista, sees Martin’s parkour-ing in much the same way as the tabloids, although he’s more inclined to patronizingly celebrate Martin’s defiance of bourgeois comfort-zones.
Far more compelling—and far more believable—is Martin and his family’s opinion of the sport. Martin takes a certain lewd pleasure in the opportunity for voyeurism that the sport affords, but this is more an afterthought. With few prospects for work or education, Martin is more or less just happy to have something in which he can excel. His father, understandably, is worried about him falling and breaking his neck.
Beneath the surface there is an incisive appraisal of British multiculturalism that Turner does better than perhaps any novelist of his generation. The anti-establishment establishment in literature either refuses to acknowledge any flaws in Britain’s multicultural scheme, or, more commonly, heaps blame for any discord on white, working-class, “xenophobic” Britons, casting immigrant peoples as the perennial victim. Refreshingly, Mr Turner is far more nuanced. He sees Britain’s racial tensions as little more than an extension of the tendency for large populations to subdivide, whose divisions can be strong but are never unbreakable. He doesn’t see (as the Left does) a world of white oppressing black, or (as with the far-right) one where different races are incapable of living together harmoniously.
The Hackletts are a tragic symbol this reality, where a shared experience of disenfranchisement and (dare I say) displacement breeds a strong capacity for mutual empathy. In school, Martin is targeted by a gang of ethnic students—“black lads” as the narrator calls them. (Mr Turner's use of colloquial London English is astounding for an art novel.) But when he stands up to them, he earns their respect. In many ways it’s just a reformulation of the basic schoolyard bully motif that runs through the literature of youth: the Greasers and the Soshes in The Outsiders, the Slytherins in the Harry Potter series, and so on. Martin is a chilling example of this deracinated post-Englishman: when the bullies’ leader Marcus changes his name to Mohammed and joins ISIS, Martin does not see it as an act of extremism but of desperation. It is the same clique, so to speak, that Marcus belonged to in school, and he’s motivated by the same desire to escape that feeling of displacement and to belong to something. Martin is not a deep thinker, and so his unenthused response strikes us as naïve. Yet we also realize that, for someone like Martin, with no prospects and no community to speak of beyond his family, he may be simply unable to share our feeling that Islamism is an existential threat. What existence of mine is it threatening? Martin seems to ask.
Displacement isn’t going to stroke any political egos. Reviews of Sea Changes tended to focus on the book’s polemical character, though I never quite agreed with that tack. What strikes me about Turner’s work is, firstly, his command of the English language, which simply has to be read to be understood. Take the first paragraph: “Night. Ice. The river scarcely moving, bearing slick reflections of skyscrapers slowly seaward down Deptford Reach. The building. The danger. The delight.” Mr Turner’s Irish heritage shines forth. As Bill Bryson mused, “No country has given the world more incomparable literature per capita of population than Ireland,” and Mr Turner certainly lives up to this legacy.
Secondly, it’s his rare lack of a political agenda, or at least an overt one. True, any modern literature not ostentatiously left-wing may seem right-wing, but Mr Turner appears intent on sweeping away our comfortably narrow views of the world. He gives each of his characters a fair say. Strikingly absent from both of his novels is a clear antagonist (though we do shake our heads at certain “useful idiots”). There are no good and bad people in Mr Turner’s work. Rather, all men and women have the capacity to commit both good and evil. And they do.
Michael Warren Davis edits poetry for the Quarterly Review and is an assistant editor at Quadrant.
Posted: August 23, 2015