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Very, Very Online: Fernando Sdrigotti's Shitstorm
Robert Barry , March 2nd, 2019 12:16

The first in a new series of novelettes from Open Pen, Shitstorm by Fernando Sdrigotti reads like flash fiction for the news

It was the size of Shitstorm that first made me want to like it. Fernando Sdrigotti’s ‘novelette’, the first in a series of short tales in book form from the small British publisher Open Pen, is an almost perfect size. It will fit in your pocket. It will fit on that book shelf that is annoyingly just a little bit too small for most books. It would even fit, should you so desire it, in the loading tray of a VCR, or in a standard sized envelope for a small letter, or in the slot of a toaster. You could hollow out the middle of another book and comfortably fit your copy of Shitstorm inside that hollowed out middle and still find room for some drugs, secret messages, and romantic keepsakes. More books should be this size. I would definitely read more if they were.

The other thing that quickly endeared this book to me was its use of the first person plural. Shitstorm is ostensibly a novel about a certain Dr Walter Turner, dentist, Minnesotan, hunting enthusiast, and his implacable entanglement in an online uproar over a leaked selfie with a recently-slaughtered lion named Cyril. But for fully half of Shitstorm’s eighty-six pages that Dr Turner is nowhere to be seen. We leave him behind in favour of a certain ‘we’, later ‘us’, or ‘our’.

This ‘we’ appears on page seven, ushering in the kind of collective protagonist en masse rarely seen since the glory days of Goskino (with a few notable recent exceptions). Albeit here, the us/we/our at play is not the Russian Proletariat or the Toiling Masses or the collective farmers but the Mob, and not the mob of nineteenth century crowd psychology or Swift’s London mob or any kind of mob of the criminal or mafioso type. Sdrigotti’s mob is the infamous Twitter Mob, the great army of egg icon antagonisers who Piers Morgan likes to accuse of periodically forcing Toby Young off the platform, who will be spluttered over in WaPo OpEds and ‘Coffee House’ blogs for The Spectator. It is the mob that complained in vast numbers when the Daily Mail published a frankly vile article by Jan Moir following the death of Stephen Gately, who forced the BBC into apology and retraction mode when it decided to stage a ‘reasoned debate’ about the rights and wrongs of summarily executing homosexuals, the mob recently accused of ending the career of a TV weather man for seemingly – and he assures us, oh so innocently – letting slip a racial slur on live TV.

These are the tornado chasers of every social media shitstorm, at once accused of putting free speech at risk and taking it too far. Schrödinger’s Mob, if you will. These are Sdrigotti’s people, his massed hero, his Phaedra, his Quixote, his Hamlet, his Cat in the Hat. “We the Mob, frothing at the mouth with rage,” he writes. “The Mob thirsty for justice, or for revenge, or for something to do, a distraction, a raison d’etre.”

There are other characters. Other names are named, male and female, sufficient to satisfy any proposed Bechdel Test. There is Stacy P., who accuses the President of the United States of America of sexual misconduct, and Keith the Nazi schoolboy, cause célèbre one minute then milkshake duck the next. There is the TV chef Marion Berry, and the Independent columnist Judith Burchill, and the concerned celebrities Maria Farrow and Danny Gervais, and the left wing blogger Owen James and the right wing blogger Brandon O’Neill.

If some of these names, and some of these events – not to mention Dr Turner himself with his bow and arrow and his dead lion and his picketed dental practice – sound familiar, it is because Shitstorm reads less like a traditional novel with its hero’s journeys and its developments and its complications and its denouements; more like flash fiction for the weirdest and most disturbing show on TV, the news. So successful is the book’s satirical simulacrum of recent events that on at least one occasion, while reading it, I caught myself thinking, ‘wait, I don’t remember that…?’

Shitstorm is a book about time, about news cycles and attention spans and the speed of information. It is a book of Ands and especially of And thens, and of sentences that expand and run on and trail of, racking up subclauses like faves and retweets. It is a book which depicts great tumults, a constant churn of crises, seemingly earth-shattering events, all quite without consequence. Just as the real Dr William Palmer, dentist, Minnesotan, murderer of a lion named Cecil, eventually weathered his own personal online shitstorm and returned to his dental practice, uncharged with any crime; so too do we finally rejoin Sdrigotti’s Palmer-surrogate, Dr Walter Turner, likewise unscathed and free to kill again. Cause and effect has no purchase here, only succession and accumulation, a perpetual escalation without climax or pay-off. This is a book written with a propulsive sense of pace, a thrilling immediacy, and excellent comic timing. It is also a book that feels very, very much like now.

Shitstorm by Fernando Sdrigotti is published by Open Pen