For a while now there has been a conspicuous trend where writers reverse-engineer the conventions of pulp and noir novels and blend them with the kind of avant-garde, experimental and even postmodern tropes more frequently associated with literary fiction.
This convergence would include Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon, China Miéville’s The City & The City, and the godfather in some ways of the genre, Jonathan Lethem, in Gun, With Occasional Music, Motherless Brooklyn and the forthcoming The Feral Detective.
I suppose in some ways it might be traced back to GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, where metaphysics mingle with double-crosses and seething violence and where nobody is to be trusted. Alan Trotter’s impressive debut, Muscle, is very much in this form, being part Raymond Chandler and part Italo Calvino. It is a novel of strange ennui and sudden horror, of stories within stories within stories, of femmes fatales and hard men. I have to say my pleasure was almost guilty in enjoying it as much as I did: especially as the book is soaked in guilt.
The basis of the book involves two toughs, Box, and the enigmatic “_____”, who crosses paths with Box when he is unceremoniously dumped on the pavement, and they go on a roller-coaster (literally) together. It’s an apt little wink. They become involved in various less than legal activities, including faking fights for a group of grifting ginger triplets, putting the frighteners on people who have crossed one of the two local bosses (both of whom remain resolutely off-stage, figures behind curtains), crushing hands to encourage people to be extorted, and more. They also spend a lot of time being bored, frustrated and sidelined. They are a kind of hard-boiled Vladimir and Estragon from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. _____ is the more enigmatic – suitably so given his name; Box is oddly quaint, asking for glasses of water while the other goons are downing gin.
The narrative is wrapped around with a prologue, a series of interludes and a final epilogue, featuring two men, Charles and Hector, with a propensity for throwing people from moving trains and who then dissect why they didn’t feel more emotion about it than they thought they would. Parts of this brought to mind André Gide’s The Vatican Cellars, with the anti-hero determined to commit a completely unmotivated crime. (Indeed, one of the characters who crosses the path of our principal protagonists has only one arm and one leg, rather like the horrific Virgin Mary in Gide, whose shattered hand reveals a metal pole and the touch of which is revelation). But Charles and Hector are going somewhere on a mission, and it doesn’t take the most astute of critics to realise that the story of Box and _____ will collide with that of Charles and Hector.
One crucial aspect of the story is the presence of a character introduced as Holcomb, a participant in the poker games in the flat where _____ stays. Holcomb hires Box as protection, and it transpires he is a writer for pulp magazines. As he sits there, slightly tense and slightly tired for whatever awfulness Holcomb fears, he begins to read the writer’s stories. Many of them are Borgesian: a strange sphere that allows you to see yourself being held by a “cacophony of giants” each resembling yourself, that move fractionally after you move. A time-traveller cornered by the boot-strap paradox – what he does in the future affects what has already happened in the past. There’s also an oral version of a new take on Little Red Riding Hood. All of this gives a patina of uncertainty and eeriness to the novel, a miasma that keeps unsettling the reader. When it all converges, it does so with the elegance of an unpicked safe.
Throughout the book, the chink in the corner of your eye is the obsession with storytelling itself. One character berates Holcomb by saying: “What’s horrible about low-rent writers being paid by the word is that they feel the need to keep going on when they’ve run out of things to say.” True, all too true. The nested stories, and the sotto voce idea that a story can change both the past and the future but never the present, is done with genuine skill. But the philosophical pirouettes wouldn’t work without a finely polished floor, and here it is done by a very smart homage to the noir style.
Take, for example, “I drank water and chewed my tongue and counted and recounted the number of noses on each face around me and never got a surprise.” Or, “He was like an old Basset Hound which didn’t get excited for much of anything lately, not since its owners had it put down.” There’s a snap and snazziness about this kind of prose, which, when tethered to serious ideas, is extremely beguiling.
None of the pyrotechnics mean much without a core of seriousness, and Trotter has that. This is a novel that asks “Can I undo what I have done?”, “What might I become?”, “Who shall forgive me and what would be their price?” He is an author whom, like a tail in a trilby, I shall be keeping an eye on. - Stuart Kelly
Muscle, by Alan Trotter, Faber & Faber, £10