Line, by Niall Bourke, Tramp Press, 184 pp, €13.99, ISBN: 978-1916291423
Willard and his mother stand in a queue of people that stretches hundreds if not thousands of miles in both directions. It has existed since before Willard was born. Each evening they pitch their tent and cook a meal, and might visit friends further up or down the Line (always capitalised in the novel) as long as they resume their place before dawn. The fireside talk is about an upcoming shift forward, or about when new rations will arrive.
That’s the conceit that forms the basis of Niall Bourke’s debut novel. “Speculative fiction” is sometimes used as an expedient term by publishers keen to avoid the shelf ghettos that the label sci-fi will apparently consign a book to. However, it certainly fits Bourke’s novel perfectly: the book is an exploration of ideas pushed to their logical conclusion. Economics rather than science is the source of the ideas being explored – stepping back from the debate that economics is also a science.
Speculative novels from Ireland are as rare as hens’ teeth, despite the towering examples bequeathed to us by Jonathan Swift and Flann O’Brien. In more recent decades we have Mike McCormack’s fictions, and a YA novel by Sarah Maria Griffin. That’s about it as regards novels that meet Margaret Atwood’s tighter definition of speculative fiction as extrapolating the latent possibilities of current trends.
In the early part of the novel, Bourke’s depiction of this multi-generational queue brings to mind Beckett’s tramps in their wasteland. One scene explores communal retribution in a way very reminiscent of Le Guin’s treatment in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Science fiction has many examples, often in shorter fiction, of youthful heroes who question their society’s beliefs as Willard and his girlfriend Nyla do.
The routine of life waiting in the Line is related in taut propulsive prose. Although described in grim detail, the concept of the Line has the resonance of an allegory. It invites thoughts of the refugee crisis, or the economically abandoned, or growing up in a cult, or more existentially of life itself and our habit of living in hope.
Reading a novel like this one is a different type of experience. The reader is constantly alert for hints as to the nature of the overlords that control the Line and the existence of the world beyond it. The writer seems to be conveying a subtle message about the power of conformity and taboo, but this is undermined somewhat by gory scenes of torture.
When Willard’s mother dies there is a heart-rending scene that evokes how the dispossessed with no access to modern medical treatment have to cope stoically with death. But again this mood is undermined by a splatterpunk description of a sky burial ceremony. It reads like an intrusion from a different story.
Young Willard finds a handbook stitched into the hem of his mother’s old clothes. This is the impetus for the young couple to embark on a long journey of escape. The previously sparse prose soars to poetry in order to convey the impact of the encounter with Nodnol: “The city sits upon them, resolute and sullen, riveted to their vision with an atavistic certainty in itself as, against it all, the salty smell of the water drifts past on the breeze.”
Bourke writes beautifully when he wants to, with taut precision when the scenario demands, and then gruesomely for reasons best known to himself.
The couple go on a journey towards greater understanding of their world in tandem with their physical voyage to Nodnol – which, if the reader hasn’t guessed already, is London hollowed out by capitalism gone mad. The latter half of the book is more playful and varied. The narrative flow is abandoned in favour of essays, economics graphs, an employment contract, a treatise on financialisation, and footnotes. The satire touches on data mining, surveillance capitalism, property booms, the migrant crisis, international investors driving out local residents. If the voyage to London has echoes of Gulliver’s Travels we are now in the biting satire of A Modest Proposal. It’s fascinating and almost believable, and tracks several anxieties of our times. The second half however is sufficiently different in style from the bleak nowhereland of the first part that inevitably some readers will have a preference.
Bourke is also a poet. His debut book is an “operatic-verse-novel” written in Onegin stanzas and inspired by the legend of Cú Chulainn. Proof indeed – if this present novel isn’t sufficient – that we have here a writer intent on beating out his own path.
Line is an adventurous and thoughtful novel, bang up to date in its concerns. It’s surprising that there is so little recent fiction to compare it with.
Aiden O’Reilly’s short fiction collection Greetings Hero is published by Honest Publishing UK.