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Cardinal Sins: An Interview With Luke Brown
C.D. Rose , March 21st, 2020 09:16

Author Luke Brown talks about his new book Theft, the influence of the Victorian novel, and why he still believes in realism

Photo: J.P. Kavanagh

The cover of Luke Brown’s new novel Theft depicts a seagull, equal parts cocky, malevolent and surprised, as if uncertain what it is actually doing there. The novel, Brown’s second (following 2014’s My Biggest Lie) is the tale of Paul Wright, a man in many ways similar to the seagull.

Paul is from an ex-fishing town in the northwest, but now lives above a Greggs on Kingsland Road, works part-time in a bookshop and writes a column called ‘The London Review of Haircuts’ for a magazine called White Jesus. The whole set up is disturbingly well-observed, a mere inch from reality: I found myself wondering in which pop-up gallery shop or interior design store I’d seen a copy of the magazine despite me not “working in fashion, or hairdressing, or living in Dalston” (as its target readership is described).

This almost uncanny effect of semi-recognition continues throughout the novel’s three hundred pages, in which Paul interviews Emily Nardini, a reclusive Glaswegian writer, meets Andrew Lancaster (Nardini’s older, centrist pop-academic partner) then engages in an awkward semi-affair with Lancaster’s woke columnist daughter, Sophie. It all gets very messy, and hugely enjoyable as you try to work out just quite who these people are. Theft is a tragicomedy without heroes or villains, populated with characters charming and detestable in equal measure.

Victorian novels permeate Theft – there are various references to George Eliot, and two of the characters even take a day trip to the Brontë house in Howarth. Were you self-consciously trying to write a contemporary version of a Victorian novel?

Some of the plot elements came from those Victorian novels with plots driven by property transfer: the orphans, deaths setting things in process by freeing up capital, multiple suitors, the marriage as ending.

Yes, a lot happens in this book. Is it all necessary?

I like plot, as long as it feels organic and doesn’t force events and people into unnatural contortions. The suspense of whether someone will ever be able to afford a house or not, and how that affects his or her romantic decisions, strikes me as a very organic thing to build a contemporary story around. I had to fight a voice telling me, this is so bourgeois!

There’s an element of contrivance, sure, though I don’t think it’s unrealistic to have a lot of things happen in a book. Friends and family die and change your life by leaving it. New people crash into your life and change it for the better or the worse.

The novel is set for the most part in London. I suppose it would be harder to have such a frenetic plot if I’d set the whole thing in Fleetwood. “It’s a friendly city,” thinks my narrator, inverting the normal stereotype we northerners sometimes have of London. That has been my experience when speaking to people at the bar, who are more used to transience, to temporary intimacies. You can make a friend every night if you drink a lot and set your mind to it.

Despite its title, the book isn’t about theft as much as it’s about property.

I started the book in London after moving from Birmingham, where I’d lived cheaply in a crumbling and bohemian shared house, which allowed me to become a writer and work part time in a low-paid job as an editor for a small press. I was paying four times the rent in London and was convinced I’d never be able to buy somewhere to live and always be at the mercy of landlords and ever-rising rents until my heart exploded.

Many young people who aren’t from money and who are working and living in London now must be seriously foreshortening their lives from the stress of it. All these conflicts drive plot nicely, explain why a character might do things that people who take their place in the world for granted find uncivilised. One of the targets of the novel is certainly that sort of bourgeoise hypocrisy, those landowners who play at being the revolutionary proletariat by writing stern tweets at right-wing politicians.

I was thinking of Property as a title – I was also going to call in North and South at one point, to hint at its connections with older novels of property – but I invoked the old Proudhon quote instead, “Property is …” Which is a bit more dramatic.

The book is also about life in the capital as opposed to life in a rundown northwest ex-fishing town, and it takes place on either side of the 2016 referendum. In a time when “the human eye has evolved not to register short reviews of literary fiction’ (according to the editor of White Jesus), is a ‘state of the nation’ novel possible, or even desirable?

It’s hard not to write about the nation if you decide to set your novel in a present when everyone is arguing about what the nation is and who are its righteous people.

I can think of a number of great novels that combine compelling personal stories with a picture of the culture of a country over a period of time. There’s a brilliant Lancashire writer called James Clarke whose second book Hollow in the Land is out soon and tells you everything you need to know about living in the towns and villages of Lancashire in the era of zero-hour contracts and a hostile benefits system. In Ireland, Nicole Flattery’s Show Them a Good Time was a pretty fierce state-of-the-nation collection from the perspective of young women confronting their powerlessness in new economy.

I can only write about London from the perspective of someone who grew up in Fleetwood, which is an isolated and declining northern town, then in Birmingham, and only listen to people in London talking about the rest of the country with the incredulous perspective of someone who’s lived elsewhere and can see that there are other ways of being moral in the world.

Writer and artist Tim Etchells says “reality is too important to be left to realists”. What’s the point in realism today?

The point of realism is to try to be truthful, however unflattering and unreachable the truth is. Slagging off realism as a convention can be as complacent as writing novels set in a recognisable world in which characters change in response to experience. The idea is, I suppose, that this never happens, that we’re falsifying experience. But if you write in first person you’re automatically avoiding some of the charges levelled at ‘lyrical realism’, as we know that someone’s trying to present their version of things, that there’s an agenda behind the supposed candour.

There’s an American tradition I think has been far too influential: bright zany cartoon fiction with easy morals. The innovative machinery distracts from the underlying lack of complexity.

One reviewer of Theft claimed Paul exudes a “jaded political agnosticism”. Is that the best we can do in these times?

I hope not. I’m angry but I can’t do these public performances of anger at the political system other writers seem to find natural. I suppose that is probably a very good definition of jaded political agnosticism.

We can vote for the left, and care about the people who are getting left behind, and as writers we can try to feature them in our fiction and non-fiction, but it’s not enough, is it? No. It really isn’t. But I share some of Paul’s distrust of the people who are so certain about everything.

Your first book was called My Biggest Lie, this one’s Theft, so after ‘bearing false witness’ and ‘stealing,’ what’s next?

My titles might be the product of my Catholic upbringing. I could have called the first two novels a number of the seven cardinal sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, wrath… Gluttony and sloth are less exciting to me, and to other readers, I expect.

I think unfortunately there is likely to be more lust, envy and wrath in the next book, which won’t be narrated in the first person. I’ve been writing stories orbiting around a tragic love affair and its repercussions and I think I’ll be able to put them together into a novel written from a number of perspectives. It’s a very roomy and spacious way of writing after being trapped in the head of rueful young men for my last two books. It’s probably a good habit for men to imagine what we look like to women.

Theft by Luke Brown is published by And Other Stories