This is a rather intriguing, deliberately disconcerting novel. When I read the press release, I confess my heart sank: “Threatened by a killer virus, the city formerly known as London splits into two zones”. I am already tired by coviderature, whether it comes in the form of “I predicted it” or “this is how we got through it” or old books being reissued as “eerily prescient” or maudlin reflections on solitariness. There are other variants as well, and I doubt this will change at any time soon (in fact, I would bet on an exponential rise in case numbers). That said, Fleshworld did interest me because the author has an impressive track record and it promised to look at the conditions of intimacy in a contagious pandemic.
Broadly speaking, in terms of genre, this is dystopian science fiction. London now has two sectors, the cold, sterile, atomised area of Pure World and its dark, hedonistic twin where anything goes, Fleshworld. The novel is mostly narrated by a medical technologies pioneer, who goes by the name Rich Power (I think one can fairly say symbolism is intended here), the inventor of a drug called “Safe” which, taken daily, ensures those in Pure World are free from the “sex decay”. Pure World is also puritanical – Rich’s mother was influential in the Pure Party – and polices its citizens with a police force known as “Dirties”. Fleshworld is an orgy of debasement, presided over by the enigmatic “Chairman Luck”, who may or may not exist, and whose bailiwick is not just brothels but gruesome executions and sadistic competitions. The novel’s trigger is that Rich has asked his very glamorous wife Ice if she would attend a “flesh party”, a diluted version of the behaviour across the border. Indeed, she was “disdainful of depravity on this side of the border, when Fleshworld has a stranglehold on it”: but she goes.
There is a degree of psychological acuity in this. Rich, wealthy, needy and married, is setting up an experiment to see if, had Ice the chance to sleep with anyone, she would still choose him. After the event, she disappears, and it seems as if she has gone into Fleshworld. Learning that she is there, and is involved in a game you cannot end unless someone takes your place, Rich decides to procure a young girl as a substitute. Never underestimate the extent to which men feel the need to be the hero, nor the moral compromises they can reach when their trophy is taken from them.
This is all done with elegance if not nuance. Stylistically, it aims for an affectless poise (much like the character of Ice). There are very few flourishes or pyrotechnics that elaborately draw attention to the prose. It is what Roland Barthes called “writing degree zero”, which seems appropriate as the other predecessors that flicker in the background are writers like Georges Bataille, Witold Gombrowicz and Jean Genet, with their obsessions with the erotic, the transgressive and the revolutionary. A second point worth noting is that Rich’s narrative is punctured by italicised outbursts, usually using sexual language that drips with loathing. It is revealed early on that this is an internalised version of his mother, a Puritan with a certain linguistic disinhibition, and who we learn is very much the reason for Rich’s emotional and physical damage.
One real curiosity is the number of questions marks in the monologue. So, for example, on a page taken at random we have “Was I guilty of something after all?... Did I kill her?... Is that why I never completely broke free?... Is there another Rich who does things that I am scared to?” This prompting is a kind of demand for the reader’s co-operation: “don’t you want to know?” is rarely answered with “Couldn’t really give a monkeys, but I guess you’ll tell me anyway”.
The novel begins and ends with a curious redemption, but not an unambiguous note: “Stains on the soul are not indelible, they can be loved clean”. The book certainly has a neatly aphoristic quality: “Emotions are mass market, picked up from old melodramas, derived in turn from Greek tragedy and God’s daydreams”. I was struck by how Morin’s work is part of a strain of Scottish writing that is increasingly underappreciated. It reminded me of the gothic and feminist re-workings of classic tropes that the late Emma Tennant produced (somebody really should republish The Bad Sister), or the obsession and horror in Candia McWilliam’s A Case Of Knives, or the way in which John Herdman and Alice Thompson have both written works which manage to combine a certain dream-like uncertainty with the utterly visceral. Morin certainly fits within that particular tradition.
As I creep contentedly into middle age, increasingly I am delighted to read a book and think “I didn’t mind reading that” – there are, as regular readers will know, some times when I do very much mind. Fleshworld is well-crafted and has compelling thoughts, even if most of the characters are dislikeable. But then that is just a kind of realism.
Fleshworld, by Carole Morin, Dragon Ink, £11.99