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Acid Communism, British Style: Carl Neville's Eminent Domain Reviewed
The Quietus , August 30th, 2020 08:58

Sound art, free beer and acid communism meet in Carl Neville's brillianty imagined political thriller, finds Paul Raven

Carl Neville’s Eminent Domain begins with a death – at least, that’s the first temporal tile we encounter in its mosaic of narrative. The question of where (and when) the story starts is far more fraught, as questions of beginnings and ending always are, but perhaps particularly so in this case. That particularity is a function of the story itself, but also of its delivery. Let’s start with the former, with my own understanding of the temporality roughly superimposed upon it.

A young woman, a grad student from the United States, crosses the Atlantic (and the Partition) to the People’s Republic of Britain, in order to research the sound-art of some minor and presumed-missing crackpot creator who was active around and after the time of the Breach, the culminating moment of the PRB’s political revolution. Julia is billeted with what passes for the family unit of Tom, a mawkish young PRB artist who made the opposite journey a little while previously, through whom she gets a crash course in the fundamentals of PRB life: fried breakfasts, free beer, bureaucracy, acronyms, and a veritable panoply of mind-altering substances both practical and recreational.

Not long after her arrival, Tom’s grandfather Alan Bewes – a somewhat diminished but once pivotal figure in the PRB’s political pantheon – passes away in his sleep. Unbeknownst to Julia, or indeed to most others, Bewes’s death is not as innocuous as it initially seems, and Barrow, an old-guard operative of the soon-to-be-reformed Security & Services Facilitation (SSF) is activated out of de facto retirement in order to investigate the situation, which will turn out to have implications that go far broader and deeper than the mere death of an ageing intellectual. Everyone mentioned so far, and many others besides, will soon be caught up in an intricate international scheme of revenge and political advantage, often completely unaware of their involvement. The basic template is the Le Carréan political espionage thriller, then, but Neville has smashed the template into bits, and cast the fragments into a parallel very-recent-past which, in terms both technological and political, is simultaneously very different and eerily similar to our own.

Also in the mix: a newly-elected transhuman POTUS; “the Enthusiasm”, half post-revolutionary academic campus cult, half techno-psychedelic Temporary Autonomous Zone; a techno-communist Co-Sphere of post-revolutionary states that stretches across the length of Europe, as well as much of Africa and South America. And did I mention the drugs? There are a lot of drugs. The jonbar point of the novel – the moment at which its story diverged from the history which we still just about agree upon in what passes for reality these days – is, I would guess, somewhere back in the 1970s; but the novel’s 1990s, which followed shortly after the Republic’s hard-fought, hard-won victory over (and expulsion of) the old Establishment, was apparently even more focussed on weird electronic music and pharmacological bacchanalia than the one I vaguely recall. (They, at least, had something to celebrate; we never really had that excuse.)

At least, this is how I think it all fits together. To reiterate, Eminent Domain is a mosaic novel, many of whose fragments are only one or two pages in length, and most of its characters are either blissfully ignorant of the dirty details of the past, or haunted by them in such a way that they’ve become hidden like abandoned towns drowned in order to make way for a new reservoir. Switching rapidly between these manifold points-of-view, and interspersing them with fragments of diegetic texts from the PRB’s equivalent of the internet mediasphere, the reader rarely gets to see things from a stable point in the plot for more than a few moments at a time. It’s a staggeringly ambitious and original work of political science fiction, told in a style as challenging to the reader as to the writer… and therein lies both prize and problem, side by side.

To be plain: I found the first fifty pages of Eminent Domain frustrating, a genuine struggle, but after that I’d seen enough of the story to know that I had to see more. And I’m glad I continued, because the sheer weirdness and ambition of the thing is marvellous, and there are longer passages further in where the POV focus stays with one character – notably, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the more major players in the drama – and the prose almost starts to sing itself off of the pages, whose turning you cease to notice, caught up in the unfolding of the story. However, there are still many pages and passages where I became dislodged and bemired, either by long and hard-to-parse fragment titles, demanding that I stop and situate them into the scattershot timeline, or by Neville’s disorienting blend of reported speech, internal monologue, and third-person narration that oscillates between the limited and omnipotent modes. This (post)modernist formal experimentation is compounded by a complete lack of quotation marks – which is all well and good. But at the same time, if you’re not going to let speech marks, tags or other such outmoded (bourgeois?) devices do the work of making it clear exactly who is speaking or thinking or observing at any given point on the page, then something else will have to. That burden can be taken on by the writer and/or the editor, or left to the reader, as one prefers – but in truth, when that work is left to me, I can very rarely be bothered to do it. That said, most of the novels or stories I’ve encountered that featured sloppy control of their material at the sentence-and-paragraph level (which were almost all unpublished or self-published, I would add) were trying to tell a correspondingly shoddy or unoriginal story. The brilliance of Neville’s imagination pulled me through in spite of my gripes, but never managed to allay them.

There’s an argument which could be made here about the unity of form, style and subject. A little digging around suggests that the absence of quotation marks is something of a trademark to Neville, also featuring in an earlier novel (which, furthermore, shares some continuity and characters with Eminent Domain and which, on the basis of a cursory scan, I assume to be set in a reality both parallel and connected to it). It’s a considered stylistic choice, in other words – and Neville’s writing elsewhere (as a reviewer and essayist) shows that he knows the rules that he is breaking, or rather refusing. Now, Eminent Domain is set in a booze-soaked, drug-addled post-communist People’s Republic of Britain, where the very notion of possession or ownership is political anathema, and many associated words and linguistic structures have been expunged from the acceptable lexicon: as such, it may be that the lack of quotation marks is meant to mirror a fundamental difference in the social cognition and discourse of the characters by comparison to our own. (This theory might also explain why the old-guard veteran characters, relics of the more conflicted world prior to the Breach, seem to have far more orderly and coherent thoughts, speech and observations associated with their time in the narrative spotlight.)

Likewise, at the level of form, the fragmentation of the narrative might be read as a reflection of the fragmentation and subjectivity of the episteme more broadly, in “our” reality as much as that in which Eminent Domain is set: there is no authoritative, coherent and reliable narrator accessible to us. (Or, if there is one, it’s crowded out among a churning vortex of websites, podcasts and videos, as well as the carefully curated reality of broadcast media, and the intimate and narrow positionalities of no-ones and some-ones, celebrities and agitators, CEOs and pundits, whoever.) Neville’s alternate yesterday is a broadband babel of ubiquitous computing, algorithmic infrastructures and optimised systems of production and distribution, a supposedly socialist utopia which – like any utopia worth its narrative salt – is anything but what it initially seems on the surface, a wax-shiny apple whose skin conceals bruised flesh and the activity of worms. In that sense, I would say that Neville is less an inheritor of the tradition of Wells than that of Huxley (and not only because of the latter’s late appreciation for the potential personal and societal merits of psychedelic refreshment).

For those among you with a more theoretical inclination, then, Eminent Domain is perhaps the first fictional depiction of acid communism, albeit not in the simultaneously realist and idealist form dreamt of by the late Mark Fisher: its world is a fully-automated not-quite-luxury socialism, clattering along in what is slowly revealed to be an enduringly corrupt, shonky and laggard minor island state on the western edge of the techno-communist Co-Sphere. The revolution was brutal and sustained, with atrocities on both sides – but like all such revolutions, leftist or rightist, its ugly roots and realities have been carefully and deliberately obscured beneath the shrubbery of the present plenitude. To repeat, this is no naive socialist utopia: Neville is very much working in the tradition of science fiction rather than political fantasy, and his choices of textual strategies and tactics are thus very plausibly a reflection of the imagined reality he is at pains to portray.

Those choices speak to a creative and imaginative ambition which leaves me in something not at all unrelated to awe. It’s that awe – and even, perhaps, an element of envy – that propelled me through the clunky passages which made me work hard just to know what was happening, and to whom… but I would be lying if I said I didn’t resent that work. It’s not as if there isn’t precedent for the successful execution of a similar style: I’m thinking particularly of John Brunner, another British-born author in whose lineage Neville might reasonably be situated, and in particular Stand on Zanzibar, which took up Dos Passos’s po-mo patchwork approach in order to depict a bewildering polyphonic multimedia futurity, but which – crucially – kept its readers in a state of epistemic estrangement without ever getting them properly lost on the page.

Ah, but Paul: in a socialist utopia, even a plausibly flawed and dysfunctional (which is to say British) one, might it not be appropriate that the work that the work of a story be shared between both author and audience? Well, maybe so – but to draw on an obvious source, “from each in accordance to their abilities, to each in accordance to their needs”. One can’t help but feel that Neville and his editors possess between them an ability which was not as thoroughly applied to Eminent Domain as it might have been – and the tragedy of that shortfall is that they might have kept a magnificent, ambitious and extremely timely story beyond the reach of an audience that desperately needs to read it. And that would be a crying shame, given the novel presents such resplendently defiant middle finger to the forces of reaction, while at the same time treating them with deadly seriousness not as caricatured political bogeymen, but as the dialectically inevitable worms in the utopian apple.

Carl Neville, Eminent Domain is published by Repeater Books. Read Carl's Eminent Domain playlist here