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Furious Since Birth: Grime, A Novel By Sibylle Berg
Arusa Qureshi , March 25th, 2023 08:39

The music genre provides a backdrop and a backbeat to a novel by Sibylle Berg about England’s uniquely awful treatment of its own population

German-Swiss author Sibylle Berg’s novel GRM Brainfuck was first published in 2019, going on to win the Swiss Book Prize that same year. With the bestseller now translated into English, the ruthless dystopian world of Berg’s four disillusioned teenagers invites in a whole new audience, and crucially, one that is situated at the very core of the novel’s narrative.

GRIME is set in Rochdale and then London, following a group that are referred to as ‘the children’, who through no fault of their own find themselves bound to each other by circumstance and social deprivation. It is their story but it is about their wider environment too – the ugliness and misery that comes with marginalisation, poverty and the overt capitalism of modern Britain.

Though based in Zurich now, Berg spent a considerable amount of time in England, researching for the book and asking questions that could only be answered by those in the immediate vicinity. In an interview with the Guardian in 2019, they explained their decision to use England as the focal point: “For me England is the model country in the western world when it comes to the triumph of neoliberalism and digital surveillance. You can find poverty in every one of the collapsing countries of the western world, but the unsentimental removal from sight of an entire part of the population because it is no longer of use in the value appreciation chain – that is unique to England.”

GRIME is both dizzying and claustrophobic in its form and narrative, each chapter chipping away at the potential for a sense of normalcy for these four children. There’s Karen, an Albino girl from a Black family who is groomed by a gang, modelled on the real life Rochdale child sex abuse ring. Peter is a Polish immigrant who is autistic and raped by a man in a hostel. Hannah’s parents are both dead, one as a result of medical malpractice and another due to suicide spurred on by an app. And finally Don, who we meet first, is described as having been “furious since birth”, finding comfort in grime; “the music that sounded the way she wished to feel”.

While the genre isn’t a fundamental part of the storyline per se, it acts as a kind of anchor, for both the four characters and for the structure of the novel itself. In the music of grime, the children find a shared outlet for their anger and for their confused identities. But in Berg’s writing style, we can also see the rhythms and verbal fragmentation of grime echoed, for example in the way the punctuation is inconsistent or the way the line-breaks are presented when characters or situations are introduced. There’s undeniably a musicality that permeates throughout but against the backdrop of inequality and abuse and the novel’s wider critique of post-Brexit Britain, it feels sinister as opposed to harmonious.

Half way through the novel, the children escape to London to start fresh, with plans to seek revenge on those that have wronged them, from Peter’s mother who abandoned him to Thome Percy, the designer of the app that led to Hannah’s father’s suicide. This could easily be the point at which GRIME turns into a teenage-revenge fantasy but it doesn’t; instead, the planned killings become a relatively minor plot point and the emphasis returns to London, where we see the true extent of Britain’s move to technological surveillance, gross xenophobia and rampant privatisation. In addition to the novel’s use of grime in the overall style, Berg begins each chapter with short, social-media-type character profiles like ‘Fetish’, ‘Health Risks’ and ‘Family Status’, which underlines the cynical data-driven surveillance society in which the characters live and their overall lack of control.

Elsewhere in the book, there are numerous characters that pop in and out, including an artificial intelligence system, EX 2279, that uses the programming language Brainfuck (which is real and was created in 1993 by Urban Müller), and becomes increasingly prevalent as the story goes on. Digital culture and IT is used as a tool for the right-wing but it’s also responsible for destabilising society in this future Britain, and the four central characters get around this by literally burying their phones so they can’t be manipulated. But they are, of course, still affected by the apocalyptic nature of this oppressive society.

Published in German, Tim Mohr’s expert translation doesn’t diminish any of the original’s sardonic qualities; rather it heightens Berg’s sharp observations on the demise of the welfare state and the horrors of authoritarianism. GRIME may be specific in its setting and use of a British subculture, and specific in its evaluation of the failures of Brexit, but the concerns are universal and relevant to the contemporary world and to industrial societies everywhere. In Don, Karen, Hannah and Peter’s stories, we bear witness to the horrors of child abuse and neglect, caused by their immediate surroundings, but in their rebellion and attempts to resist this new world, we also see the true extent of corruption when artificial intelligence merges with political influence. Berg’s novel acts as a warning – against surveillance, government monitoring and increased digitisation, but it also highlights how easily trust in democracy is used and then broken.

Grime by Sibylle Berg is published by St. Martin's Griffin