Luke Kennard, The Transition

Just finished Luke Kennard’s The Transition. Really good read — I sprinted through it, which doesn’t happen all that often anymore. Here’s a summary of the novel’s situation from Justine Jordan’s review in The Guardian:

We’re in Britain, a few years from now: driverless cars and self-stocking fridges are a reality, but the housing crisis has only got worse. Like most thirtysomethings, “middle-class underachiever” Karl and his wife, Genevieve, find that their rent always outstrips their earnings, even though their living space is a wallpapered conservatory in a shared house. Credit‑card juggling and a spot of last‑ditch online fraud land Karl in trouble, but instead of prison, he and Genevieve are offered a place on The Transition: a six‑month hiatus during which they will live with an older, more successful couple, learn from them about all that boring adult stuff like self-reliance, financial planning and dental hygiene, and save up enough money for a starter rabbit hutch on the bad side of town.

Part of my interest was personal — maybe I’m going through a bit of a ‘transition’ myself. (The new blog — there was one, a very, very long-running one — before this). But in general I’m a sucker for soft-core ‘dystopia now’ type stuff — The Transition is set in a world that, minus a few satirical doublings-down, is our own. (Driverless cars are really becoming the marker of ‘five-years-hence’ nowadays…)

But another thing — really appreciated the representation of other books and texts it. In particular, there’s The Transition: Mentor’s Edition that pops up again and again and which is made up of issuelessly mysterious little vignettes and parables. For instance, here’s the first one, which we read long with the protagonist of the novel just after he’s discovered the book left lying out on the kitchen work-surface:

The writer is on her deathbed. Her best friend since childhood is at her side. They used to jump into the lake together, holding hands. She asks her, her voice failing, she asks her, Do you have all of my writings? All of them, says her friend. Do you have all of the poems? she asks. Yes, says her friend. We have all of your poems. Do you have all of the short stories and essays? she asks. Yes, we have all of your short stories and essays. We have them tied in bundles in two tea chests. And the works in progress? she asks. Yes. We have all the works in progress and your letters and your journals, says her friend. Burn it, she says. Burn it all. You don’t mean that, her friend says. And the writer grabs her by the wrist, using every ounce of energy she has left, digging her nails between the tendons so that her friend cries out and looks right into her eyes, which are wide and crazy, like she’s horrified by what she’s looking at, and she says, her last words, she says, Burn it all. After the funeral her friend drags the two tea chests down to the furnace one by one. She places the first bundle — a sequence of poems and drafts about Leda and the Swan — in the grate and it catches fire. She nudges it with the poker, but it smoulders and barely moves. There’s a lot of smoke. She coughs. She looks at the two tea chests. She realises this is going to take a while.

What’s interesting about this: it’s obviously a repetition with the barest of variation on a familiar story about writers and the afterlives of their work. C.f. Kafka and Brod et al. But the episodic, semi-parabolic structure is also interesting in the way that the vignette fails to fulfil the basic contract of the form. In short, we expect an epiphany — especially, perhaps, in a book called The Transition: Mentor’s Editon. A decision on the part of the pyro-delegate, a revelation just before the texts are burned, whatever. Instead it ends on an anti-climactic note: the very material realisation that bunched paper takes an awfully long time to burn.

Dystopian texts tend — you may have noticed — to insert other texts inside of themselves. 1984 and Goldstein’s book is an obvious example, but it’s a trope of the genre. One reason for this, I think, on a structural level is that the insertion of such texts allows, if implicitly, questions to be begged about the use-value of writing. (Can Goldstein’s book cause a revolution? Can 1984 itself?) In Kennard’s book, which feints in the direction of being a novel of self-improvement through self-discovery, these issueless anecdotes serve as a cracked mirror to plot trajectory he’s taken up only to unwind by the end of the work.