21st century Scotland’s answer to J.G. Ballard

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Jenni Fagan is one of the most interesting figures in Scottish and probably world literature right now. She was already an award-winning poet when her debut novel, The Panopticon, came out in 2013 and established her reputation. It’s the narrative of a teenage girl, Anais, who has grown up in care. At the start of the novel she’s in the back of a police car, suspected of putting a policewoman in a coma. Anais was high on drugs at the time and her memory of what happened is fragmentary, but bloodstains on her clothes make her fear that she might actually have committed the crime. While the police investigate, she is housed in the latest in a long line of residential care homes: a rambling stone edifice in the Scottish countryside known as The Panopticon.

That’s the set-up. But the reason this novel won so many prizes is not its plot. Fagan is interested in character; in how her storm-tossed protagonist perceives the world, and how the world perceives her. Two things stand out: one is her instinctive suspicion of the motives of almost all the adults around her; the other is her power of observation. And this is what gives Fagan her unique voice, with funny spiky dialogue set against vivdly poetic descriptions of the phenomena Anais observes.

This is her signature style and she carries it on into her second novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims. Second novels, like second albums, are notoriously difficult, perhaps especially when the first one has been so defined by its protagonist (Note to DC Pierre: Ludmila’s Broken English remains one of the most unreadable books I’ve ever come across).

The Sunlight Pilgrims does feature a troubled teenager, but the main narrative thrust comes from a male character, Dylan, who journeys up from London to a caravan park in the Scottish Highlands after his family’s arthouse cinema is repossessed by bailiffs. Dylan has the title deed to a caravan left to him by his mother, but it’s a strange time to be going north: melting polar ice caps have chilled the sea and temperatures are plummeting, with the coldest winter ever on the way and possibly even the dawn of a new ice age.

I enjoyed the description of Dylan making his escape from the red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism which has finally provoked the long-talked about catastrophe:

 “the door to the toilet cubicle behind him has a red engaged sign and there is a sound of vomiting, and in between retching a man repeats the same two words.
-I die, I die, I die.”

Yes, we are in a Megabus – emblem of the world we know, that melange of convenience and ugliness made tolerable only by its reliable provision of black comedy. This is the territory of A.L. Kennedy, and echoes of Kennedy – and Ian Banks – continue to be apparent after Dylan has arrived in the oddball community of Clachan Fells. It’s in the pinpoint descriptions of nature and the awkward comedy of desire as Dylan finds himself entranced by Constance, the survivalist mother of a transgender teen, Stella, who are the novel’s other two main characters.

But this is Jenni Fagan, and if she borrows from other writers, it’s to produce an effect that is entirely her own. It may seem a weird comparison to make, but the other echo I kept hearing as I read was the science fiction of J.G. Ballard.

In the early sixties, Ballard was obsessed with apocalyptic novels, no doubt enouraged by the fact that they sold and could allow him to leave his job at Chemistry and Industry magazine while still paying the bills for his young family. In rapid succesion he pumped them out like there was no tomorrow: The Wind from Nowhere The Drowned World, The Burning World, and The Crystal World, all set on a planet suddenly ravaged by nature gone awry.

I don’t think Fagan is talked about as a science fiction writer, as Ballard described himself. But from the first sentence of The Sunlight Pilgrims there’s a Ballardian feel:

“There are three suns in the sky and it is the last day of autumn – perhaps for ever. Sun dogs. Phantom suns. Parhelia.” 

The ominous mood reminded me of the start of one of Ballard’s wackiest works, The Crystal World, which he expanded from the short story The Illuminated Man. In classic Ballard-fashion, a mysterious emotionally detached male protagonist, Doctor Sanders, makes his entry into a weirdly decaying world. We join Sanders on the deck of a steamboat waiting to dock at a West African port, observing how

“the sky was overcast, the water was almost black, like putrescent dye.”

Aside from an interest in celestial phenomena and unusual scientific word choice, Fagan and Ballard both offer a distinctly Freudian take on the domesday scenario. Sanders blunders into the crystallising West African jungle not on some scientific mission to find out what’s going on, but in search of his ex-mistress, the enigmatic Suzanne Clair. Similarly, Dylan has scarcely arrived at Clachan Fells before he’s fallen for Constance, and is worried less about freezing to death than whether he can usurp his taxidermist rival, Alistair.

Ultimately, though, for all their similarities, Dylan is no Sanders, and the ending of The Sunlight Pilgrims is almost the exact opposite of The Crystal World. Ballard was a man writing about men, while Fagan is a woman, trying to offer twenty first century answers to Ballard’s nightmarish vision of the future of the human race and the planet. They make an intriguing comparison.

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