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The following is a word from our resident bush-pissing reviewer Scott Manley Hadley

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PLEASE VOTE FOR SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY AS BEST REVIEWER AT SABOTEUR AWARDS 2017

Scott Manley Hadley is Open Pen’s resident indie books reviewer and he’s been shortlisted in the Best Reviewer category at this year’s Saboteur Awards. To win this prestigious award, however, he needs YOUR HELP, as he’s up against people who write and review for like TV and radio and stuff! That’s right, this is your opportunity to stick it to “the man” by helping a [comparatively] unsuccessful middle class white person beat some [comparatively] successful middle class white people to an award! #breakthewheel

But why should you vote for Scott Manley Hadley? “Who is he and what has he done for me?” you ask. Why does he deserve to win? Let me tell you:

Scott Manley Hadley is a “literary lifestyle blogger” who has been publishing book reviews on his personal blog, Triumph of the Now, since 2013 and for Open Pen since Summer 2016. He believes that biographical criticism is not just valid but essential – if he was being pretentious (which he’s trying hard not to be), he’d describe himself as a “post-Barthesian critic”. He believes that the experience of reading literature is deeply rooted in the mood and circumstances of the writer (obviously) but also the reader: a bad book is cut a lot of slack if you read it on a beach, while a great work of literature crumbles to nothing if you try to read it while commuting, going through a messy divorce or when too wasted to concentrate.

As well as his prose reviews, Scott Manley Hadley has recently begun producing a lo-fi literary magazine web series, Triumph of the Now TV, with guests including Ros Barber (academic and writer of The Marlowe Papers), Hermione Eyre (journalist and author of Viper Wine), Faruk Sehic (Bosnian poet & novelist, winner of the EU Prize for Literature), Eley Williams (author of Attrib. and Other Stories) and Open Pen editor (and former [semi-]professional wrestler) Sean Preston. Winning this award will help him to secure even more exciting guests for his web series and get even fresher, newer, hotter takes on the great fiction that is currently pouring out of indie presses in the UK.

Why will it be good for Open Pen if Scott Manley Hadley wins this award? Because (other than winning awards itself) nothing makes a publication look better than its regular contributors winning awards. This is win-win-win-win, so please, please, please vote for him.

Once you’re ready to get down to doing it, click here. If you’re uncertain what to vote for in other categories, we heartily recommend Attrib and Other Stories by Eley Williams in ‘Best  Short Story Collection’ and An Unreliable Guide to London in ‘Best Anthology’.

 

REVIEW

SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY REVIEWS
FORBIDDEN LINE  (GALLEY BEGGAR PRESS)  BY PAUL STANBRIDGE

Forbidden Line is a brand new book published by Galley Beggar Press, the company behind Eimear McBride’s award-crushing A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. McBride’s novel (released way back in 2013 when I had hair and hope for the future) is a rip-roaring ride, and was so successful it lifted Galley Beggar Press to a prominent position within the British literary scene. Since then, GBP has maintained its reputation, putting out a smashing selection of literary texts. Doing what every good independent publisher should be doing (right?), publishing powerful and unique texts overlooked by traditionalist and/or populist mainstream publishers, gifting to the world great literature that may otherwise have been overlooked, ignored, forgotten or discarded.

Paul Stanbridge’s Forbidden Line is very much a non-mainstream novel. It is experimental, it is genuinely weird, it is focused (at least initially) on rural England and it makes many references to literary works and historical events. It is highly stylised and contains much wordplay, a Fowlesian disregard for literary convention, a lot of violence, a lot of intoxication and implies a heavy engagement with historical sources. It does a lot of interesting things, but – and this is the big one – is there too much going on for it to be enjoyable? However, even if the answer to that question is “yes”, it raises the secondary question about its purpose: is Stanbridge’s novel meant to be enjoyable? And, if it isn’t, what is it meant to be? Maybe Forbidden Line is ultimately a joke, a satire taking aim at a reader’s perceived notions of fiction and normative narrative structures. Let’s have a look in more detail, pull apart the text’s many threads.

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Forbidden Line starts off as an Essex-based retelling of Don Quixote, but rather than believing he is a knight errant, Don Waswill (who is accompanied by his servant Isiah (known as “Is” and then later “Is-Book”) believes in the importance of Chance and the negative effects on society caused by any and all written history. These two characters become embroiled in a 21st-century re-enactment of the Peasants’ Revolt that turns incredibly bloody, and they discover that they’ve accidentally been copying the movements of the historical mob, functioning as lightening-rod-like leaders dragging the recorded past into the present. Additionally, Don had written a non-consecutive encyclopaedia over the twenty-one years that preceded his meeting Isiah, but after he develops an intense disapproval of all written words the two men destroy the encyclopaedia and the crate that contained it. This crate keeps reappearing, no matter how many times they destroy it, while Isiah – who has phenomenal powers of memory – becomes the new repository for a solely oral encyclopaedia, hence the change of name mentioned above.

Still with me?

Stanbridge plays with literary norms throughout, in what begins as a rather trad Modernist vibe but becomes more 1960s/70s later on. We read passages in different styles, initially parts of Don’s encyclopaedia but later on extracts from other texts. We see diagrams, especially maps, and we read written versions of the second, oral, encyclopaedia. Time is liquid, as too are locations – the characters move in ways that match neither reality nor the normalised laws of fiction. (A bit like Mantissa by John Fowles.) The two protagonists believe in Chance in opposition to cause and effect, and Stanbridge’s gently present narrator also seems to have little interest in a structured narrative. In fact, the narrator often seems to have less control over his characters than they do over him. It isn’t the narrator who merges and moves time and place, but Don, or Chance itself. Through this technique the novel perhaps seeks to prove its own internal logic: the unexpected keeps happening, cause and effect do not apply, things are destroyed but then reappear, things that do not happen have happened, people share names with historical figures from the past and identities are coagulated and altered based on popular opinion. In short, it’s weird: the reader is knocked about, confused, constantly on the back foot and uncertain about any of the facts within the novel’s fictional world. No rules are unbreakable, nothing is predictable. The only constant truth is the fact that what we believe to be true may change at any time. The only rule that stays unbroken is the rule that every rule can be broken. This sort of arrangement has the potential to be quite fun, and in many ways the dishevelled and discombobulated reader can take pleasure from the book twisting them into confusion, if exhaustion doesn’t set in first.

The prose is written in an elevated style, long sentences, big words (i.e. polysyllabic vocabulary), and we are regularly bombarded with information, and complex intellectual theories, most frequently w/r/t “the hyperfine transition of hydrogen” – which I didn’t understand – but also about literature, esp Don Quixote and previous variants of it, plus the already-mentioned Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The reader needs to pay attention to every word within every sentence if they are to understand what is happening as meaning is often obtuse. For me, it became tiring – a novel this big cannot be this much work unless the gains the reader receives are equal. Joyce gets away with being verbose because he’s both witty and human; Woolf gets away with difficult prose because she writes deep emotional truth; Conrad’s seemingly turgid prose is a slim veil over the top of great swash-buckling excitement; and well-translated Proust gets away with massive, circling, immersive sentences because it’s gorgeous and glorious and art-affirming. Will Forbidden Line provide these climactic highs for a reader, or am I just setting the limbo bar impossibly low, judging Stanbridge against his stylistic peers?

My big fear right now is that my lack of enjoyment of Forbidden Line comes down to this: either I’m not as clever as I think I am or Paul Stanbridge isn’t.

Forbidden Line is full of conflicting and exploratory and intellectual themes and – to almost patronise myself (the vice that keeps making me late for work in the mornings) – I couldn’t keep track of them all. Stanbridge has loaded Forbidden Line with so much stuff, so many ideas, so many letters in words and so much researched knowledge that I’m prepared to admit that I was intellectually dwarfed. I couldn’t cope. And I’m not stoopid (I’ve got two degrees). Am I stupid?

Stanbridge’s prose has a strong and distinctive style and I regularly had to reread sentences to understand the meaning. The book is fun, it is literarily playful, and when I was most on board with it, it regularly made me smile. Its disengaged treatment of violence, its use of Ian McEwan as a character and its extended section on previous adaptations of Don Quixote are all examples of elements of the text that combined to make me feel uncertain where to look with my mind’s eye.

And there is a lot here to be enjoyed. Multiple time streams and postmodern attitudes to structure, mixed media, twisted expectations, having fun with history and convention and questioning societally normal attitudes related to perception of the present and the perception of society. And there’s so much of everything. Forbidden Line is a novel brim-full of ideas and though I sometimes found myself floundering I feel this is deliberate – it is a shifting, complex, text ON PURPOSE.

Forbidden Line is meant to destabilise a reader and rail against the normative experience of reading even a [standard] experimental book. Forbidden Line offers a unique reading experience – there is nothing quite like this – however this uniqueness does demand a hefty intellectual effort on the part of the reader.

Forbidden Line is interesting and intriguing and a successful attempt at doing something original with the written word.

Since reading it, I’ve done a bit of research on The Peasants’ Revolt, casually, and also on the different versions of Don Quixote mentioned in the book. One of them – which I hadn’t realised – was a fictional adaptation in the real world, taken from a short story by Jorge Luis Borges (who I’ve barely read) but treated like a real life figure in Forbidden Line. Stanbridge’s novel has layers to it, layers that perhaps I lack the cultural capital to appreciate properly. Maybe the whole novel would open up, wide, if I read it in tandem with Wikipedia or I just happened to be more cleverer.

Forbidden Line wore me out, but if it was a lover, a squash game, a meal or a dog, I’d definitely consider that a good thing. A unique read, worth a go if you’re up to it.

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Scott Manley Hadley blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com.

Find more by:

GALLEY BEGGAR PRESS

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QUIET FLOWS THE UNA  (ISTRO BOOKS)  BY Faruk Šehić
(translated by Will Firth)

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That aroma of freedom arising from the waterweed is erotic and intoxicating because it contains elixirs of eternal youth – an alchemy that cannot be fully described because it is never-ending like tufa, the stone that the tiny tufa-makers have built their stems and hearts into for tens of thousands of years.

cover-una_566ecf511e21cQuiet Flows the Una is a multi-award-winning contemporary novel by Faruk Šehić that weaves an unexpectedly magical journey through rural Bosnia either side of the horrific civil war of the 1990s.

That sounds bleak, doesn’t it? That sounds hard. But it isn’t: Quiet Flows the Una is a perfectly pitched evocation of the weight that war puts on the memory, and how trauma effects the remembrance of place, of time, of home and of innocence. Quiet Flows the Una is an impressive novel, and one that avoids cliché and predictability in both its style and content.

As a personal aside, few things piss me off more than the popularity of the phrase, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. It’s colossal bullshit, especially when you read as many books as I do. I’ve read all of and more than the ‘canonical’ books I’ve got any interest in reading, and I quickly find and plough through any recommendations I receive from the two or three individuals [who aren’t animals] that I describe as friends. I also read books that are by writers I’ve enjoyed in the past and books by writers who are supposedly similar to them, but even doing that, I’d still end up locked into a predictable space if I didn’t make leaps into the dark. The ONLY way I’m going to get myself exposed to different, engaging, literature is if Ido judge books by their covers: their blurb and their design. I write this to justify the following comment: Quiet Flows the Una has a conspicuously beautiful – and not plain – cover, which is a rare combination in independent publishing, where cover designs tend to either be simple (though usually effective) or ugly.

The cover of the Quiet Flows the Una is a composite piece containing illustrations by Aleksandra Nina Knežević (whose pictures are included throughout the text) over the top of a photograph of rippling water. This image makes clear the novel’s clash between innocence and wisdom, violence and nature, the divine or dreamlike and the real, the water and the land. It’s a strong book cover and the designer deserves a bit of praise.

When we open the book, we find ourselves in Bosnia after the war, in the first person narration of a combat veteran, a man somewhat feared in his town. This man – possibly called Husar, though this is denied at one point – is preparing to be hypnotised by a travelling performer. The veteran waits to slip out of consciousness, but before he realises that he has, he is already enveloped in his past, in myriad memories that we, the reader, are also privy to. We are in his childhood, we are on the banks of the River Una, and we are at peace.

What follows is 200 pages of glorious, rather intense, prose all about land and memory, past and future. There is a hole in Husar’s memory, a hole that seeps out and poisons what happened either side. He loves the river of his hometown, he loves the countryside, but as much as he tries to focus on the idyll of a rural childhood playing and catching fish in the river, he is regularly driven into thoughts of violence and destruction. The old Pagan gods of the area are evoked, as too is Allah, the god his grandmother worships. But more important than any spirituality, any divinity, is Nature, capitalised and important. The gods of humanity, of different ages and eras and empires and peoples change. Belief in a supposedly eternal god is undermined by the reality of the changing identities of eternal gods over the course of history. What people seek when they look towards the divine is an explanation for the wonder and the pain that exists in the real world. And nowhere is the immense power of whatever it is that did cause existence (be that a singular or multiple divinity or arbitrary forces working over a near infinite amount of time) more manifest than in the glory of the natural world, summed up and totalled by Šehić as the waters of the Una. The river purifies, the river cleans, the river brings food and sweeps away the dirt and detritus of life. The River is a god in itself: it is named, it is worshipped and it is needed, the geographic, emotional and thematic centre of the text.

Husar discusses his memories of fishing as a child. He recalls the best places to find fish and the best places to find the plumpest maggots to use as bait. These aren’t clean childhood memories, though: the fattest fish congregate close to where human shit enters the river, and the fattest maggots can be found inside the animal skulls dumped in the water at the back of the butcher’s.

The Bosnia of the late 1970s and the 80s, the Bosnia of Husar’s childhood, was a tranquil place as he experienced it, but the adult [doing the remembering] understands that great unpleasantness was bubbling up out of his sight, great unpleasantness that was soon to explode and damage his homeland. When Husar remembers the peaceful places of his childhood, he does so whilst trying to ignore the atrocities he witnessed and/or was complicit in as a soldier. However, as some of these events happened in the same places as his childhood joy, his mind moves, unwilling. When he was a soldier he used memory as a way to block out, to avoid engaging with, what was happening around him. He corrupted his childhood memories during the war, and under hypnosis he tries and tries to think only of the good in his life, but there has been too much destruction, too much pain, and the gaps between descriptions of nastiness get shorter.

Fish are there throughout, but the fish get more dangerous and less beautiful, the same with snakes. As a child, the natural world is something that can be controlled, even the human waste pouring into the river is washed away, it disappears. Here, in Husar’s post-war head, we dream with him and we shrink to the size of an ant, we grow and we fly, we travel to places he has never been and we witness his town imbuing the characteristics of a thousand global cities. But always we come back to reality and then the river, the eternal Una, to her waves and her sides and her fishy denizens.

The water melts the ice during the day and the branches, whose bark has taken on a reddish, wintry colour, briefly come alive, but only till dusk, when the cold claps them in chains again.

The river lives, and it has to, it needs to. It is better than us, humanity, it is wiser and stronger, and its continuance is a source of joy when so much human destruction is evident all around it. Quiet Flows the Una evokes the yearning for peace, which is here a dream as impossible as human flight, teleportation and Honey I Shrunk the Kids style shrinking.

Novels lauded in their native language can suffer in translation – we’ve all read an abominably shit though prize-winning foreign book at some point (Houellebecq anyone?) – but Will Firth’s work here is commendable, allowing Šehić’s images and narrative to tie us up with evocative language, suited to the form and the content. Quiet Flows the Una is a poetic, lyrical, dreamlike, novel. It pulls a reader under, bashes them around the head with glorious nature imagery juxtaposed with wartime horror. It tells a reader about a man who has seen horror but doesn’t want to live in it, who has lived amongst ruins and seen the reconstruction of a place that exists, still, as ruins in his mind. He wants to be a poet, he wants to be pure. But he is tainted, he feels. Though Šehić – who lived a life very similar to Husar’s – is not too tainted to tell his story with beauty.

An intoxicating and engaging treat. Recommended.

 

Scott Manley Hadley blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com.

Find out more about:

Istro Books
Faruk Šehić
Will Firth

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LOVE NOTES TO MEN WHO DON’T READ  (LIMEHOUSE BOOKS)  BY NORTH MORGAN.

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Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read is a brand new book, the third novel by North Morgan. Personally, I loved it, which means that this essay might end up being very critical, because I hate myself and have an inherent distrust of my thoughts and feelings.

The novel has a tight first person perspective and offers us an insight into two years of the life and thoughts of Konrad Platt. Platt is an affluent man in his early to mid-thirties who leaves London in 2013 following the messy break-up of a long-term relationship. He moves to Los Angeles where, for the couple of years the novel covers, he fills his time with working out, partying, playing on the internet and having unfulfilling relationships and enjoyable casual hook-ups. He is body obsessive, about his own and other people’s, and every character who enters is described in physical detail. This is reminiscent of the brand consciousness of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, where each new character’s clothing is used to swiftly define them. Is judging a person by their muscle tone better than judging them by their clothing? I think they’re pretty much the same, especially in this context, where Platt’s favourite body type is muscular, muscle-bound, big assed – he’s into guys who have the free time and the money and the obsession with personal beauty to work out almost every single day. This is the setting of Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read: the international gay bro scene.

love_notes_72dpi_rgbEveryone here aspires to the same look, physicality is central, the Body is worshipped, everyone wants bodies that look like theirs and they want their bodies to look like the bodies of people they want. Not people, men. Platt has little interest in women, especially women’s bodies. Women are conspicuous by their absence from this book, which is about extremes of masculinity, extremes of man, it is a homosocial text far more than it is a homosexual one: this is a book about men, unshackled from a) the repression of gay sexuality in the past, b) financial concerns and c) the heteronormative societal pressures on monogamy. It is Lord of the Flies but in the entire world instead of on an island. Also, no one dies, no one gets physically hurt and there’s no one epileptic: these are fit, healthy, men who are living a dream.

I referenced Bret Easton Ellis above on purpose, that wasn’t throwaway. Morgan reminds me of Easton Ellis due to his thematic interests, his intense opening up of a consciousness and his narcissistic acknowledgement of sex as a constant male concern (even body-shaped food turns men on: see this piece I wrote about simulating cunnilingus on a fried egg sandwich). With Easton Ellis, however, there is always a threat, there is always violence or corruption or horror waiting close by (more so as his career developed), but with Morgan we are safe, always. Platt is always in a safe space. Some of this, perhaps, comes from his physicality – he is gym honed, strong and physically fit, he prides himself on his tough masculinity and he isn’t the kind of person who would end up in trouble, despite being constantly surrounded by other tough, strong, men. In Morgan’s evocation of this lifestyle there is a very literal “gay community”, with a camaraderie, a brotherhood, amongst gay men, and with this comes freedom and physical (though not emotional) safety.

Platt’s world of privilege is the thing some readers might find alienating about Love Notes… Platt has a highly remunerative part time job that he can do from anywhere in the world, he can travel anywhere whenever he wants to. He has no responsibilities, no pets, no children, no relationship that lasts. He is free to do what he wants to do. And what he wants to do is fuck and get fucked, and the world of social media puts millions of potential hook-ups at his fingertips. He adds hot-bodied strangers who are thousands of miles away on Facebook and they chat, sometimes fucking when their paths cross months or years later. Grindr’s usefulness is self-evident, as too are all the other social media apps you can think of: any software, really, that allows the swift transfer of horny words, pictures and videos with someone who looks sexy. Everyone has a great body and everyone is looking for fun. The world that Konrad Platt exists in is internationalist, liberal, moneyed, connected, leisured. No one is tired from work, just from the gym; no one has money worries, no one has real worries about their body because they’re working out near daily, nothing worse than being cheated on ever happens to anyone, but as they all cheat themselves or fuck men who they know have boyfriends, the normalisation of promiscuity is accepted as an irrevocable truth. With clear and frank conversations and widespread understanding of health, everyone wears condoms and even when Platt hooks up with HIV positive guys, it’s not an issue. They all know what they’re doing and everything is consequence free.

It sounds fantastic.

My main fear, as I read through this engaging, hilarious, novel, was that it would turn moralising, was that it would crowbar in an encounter with a poor, obese, woman to highlight the distance of Platt’s life from the lives of the majority of people. It doesn’t. There is no 2am mugging, no conversation with a woman who works as a prostitute in a supermarket, no death from drug use, no sex disease (do people still call them “love bugs”?), no fight, no sickness, no serious muscle injury from over-exercise, no becoming overweight whilst bulking, no stock market collapse, nothing. This was, to be honest, fucking refreshing: Morgan’s book is about what it is about, the life of an affluent, international, single, toned, gay man. It doesn’t feel exaggerated, it feels exactly like the kind of behaviour any man would indulge in if he could. If I could move to California, have a guaranteed income that required little work and wasn’t painfully sexually repressed, I’d love to live like Platt. It sounds and it reads like a believable lifestyle, and North Morgan’s real life Instagram account looks pretty similar to how he describes Konrad Platt’s, albeit with more books.

Love Notes… is a very funny book, and I was laughing raucously from a few pages in. There are great send ups of heavy social media users, of gym fans, of ravers, of whatever a non-pejorative word is for people who have a lot of sex. Even though I’m not gay, muscular, single or connected (unless having met the people who run Open Pen counts [ed – lol not even]), I could constantly relate and was constantly amused.

Platt isn’t happy, he often thinks about the repetitive nature of his life and finds it unfulfilling, but he also finds it fun. Platt is trapped in an aspirational lifestyle that he really enjoys, but doesn’t necessarily like it when he reflects on it. But does anyone truly like their life? Is anyone happy when they think about the process of ageing, of mortality, of war and famine and disease and hatred and prejudice and these flesh cages we are all trapped inside in an existence none of us chose to begin? No, I don’t think so, I think deep down everyone is empty, there is a hole at the core of every individual that used to be filled with naive religion but is now covered up with intoxication, the internet, entertainment and sensual pleasure. Platt is behaving in a rational, understandable, way, and Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read is a well-written, very readable exploration of a particular lifestyle. The lack of women (there is one recurring female character and she is not sympathetic) or consideration of money are the factors I’m sure people looking to critique the book will cling onto, but I think that would be unfair.

This is a great novel about extremes of masculinity, about gym culture, hook-up culture, drug culture, one particular strand of gay culture: this is a funny, smart, knowing, book, and one that was a real pleasure to read. Getting exposed to great, new fiction like this is exactly why I took on this reviewing role. It is emotional, it is intelligent and it made me laugh over and over again. My one criticism would be the lack of detail in the sex scenes, but I’m a very prurient man, it comes with the repression.

Excellent, recommended.

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North Morgan will be reading from ‘Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read’ at Open Pen Live on Wed 28 Sep. Tickets available here.

Scott Manley Hadley blogs at Triumph of the Now and has recently been writing about baldness and prejudice for the Huffington Post.

Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read is out now and available in two formats priced at £14.99 and £8.99 online at Limehouse Books.

REVIEW

Scott Manley Hadley Reviews
The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes  (Dead Ink)  by Harry Gallon

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Arguably the most self-involved book review of all time.

This might be a long one. I feel ready to digress.shapes-of-dogs'-eyes

Buckle up!

Harry Gallon’s The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes is a novella, a gritty, earthy, boozy, druggy, sexy novella set all up and inside of Hackney in about 2014.

It’s all craft beer and cocaine and marijoowuanwua and sleeping on sofas and fucking with condoms and smartphones and Tinder and Twitter and pubs and bars and clubs and stubs and fags and cash and theft and middleclass, mid-20s angst about turning into an adult, the central conceit (theoretically) being that dull domesticity is brought about by dogs (all of who[m][i] are sentient) for the propagation and comfort of their own species. This idea, which flows in and out of the novel’s text like a hangover at a picnic, is not fully explained, and the phrase “The shapes of dogs’ eyes” recurs throughout, moving from an idea to an ideology to a presumed piece of prose – is the character within the novel writing the novel in our hands? Is this real life? Because it feels real, it feels like taking a short from where I live and it feels like many, many adventures I’ve had myself, because I too am an East London dickhead[ii], as every single character in the book is and – I’m afraid – there’s a pretty high likelihood you are too. Are you? Are you suuure you’re not?

I’ve lived in Gallon’s hipster bartender scene, so close that a friend of mine is listed in his acknowledgements. I messaged her and asked what the connection was, and she informed me that Harry Gallon is her boyfriend’s brother. This is even closer than I’d imagined. The only important difference is that his alcoholic interest is craft beer, and I’m more Cocktail.[iii] When I was a wannabe writer working in bars, I saw myself as this:

(That wasn’t what I looked like to outsiders, and that isn’t how that period of my life looks in hindsight.)

The difficultly I had with The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes is that it felt like a terrifying flashback to my own past. I’ve been in most of the situations in the novel – I’ve worked in bars with cockroaches and broken equipment, I’ve gone from bar to bar to bar to party, I’ve passed out on strange sofas, I’ve coasted through months at a time doing nothing to develop my life, I’ve been to Pub Watch meetings, I’ve had conversations with chefs about GP[iv], I’ve been on holiday to Tuscany, I debated getting a dog for years whilst doing bar work, and now have a dog and am not doing bar work. The first change has been wonderful, the latter not so much.

Bar work is great. Like, I mean it, it’s the best job [I’ve ever had]. Gallon captures bar work excellently – the routine, the poor diet, the sleeping in, the constant drinking, the huge prevalence of theft[v], the normalisation of constant use of legal and illegal intoxicants[vi], the self-importance, the belief that knowledge about booze is the best kind of knowledge and a rising snobbishness that gets validated every shift by the shared snobbishness of your colleagues.

#craftbeermatters

#ginmatters

Eee Tee Cee.

And Gallon gets it. He’s clearly lived it, he imbues his scenes with a vivid, visceral, realness. There’s dirt and damp and insects, there’s drug use and fucking and dog turds under furniture[vii], there are all the right street names, all the right beers, all the right pubs and parks and fences, the managerial and compliance procedures he details are standard industry practice, and that’s all great for gritty social realism, but, and this is a big but for me: is it interesting?

Was I deadened to the excitement of The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes because it was all so familiar, because I know these places and these people[viii] and these lives? Would it be exciting for office drone 9-to-5ers in the same way I enjoy watching (though not reading, I’m almost 30) Game of Thrones? Because I cannot deny that it’s evocative, and a lifestyle different from the average UK experience, despite it being one I’ve known first-hand. Gallon’s writing is full of description and emotion and energy, and is often quite funny, quite witty.

BUT where that wit comes to the fore is in places quite traditionally middle class. There’s a good joke about it taking as long to get to Florence from London as it does to cross the city in rush hour. That’s not a bartender gag, that’s a middle class dinner party quip, and I felt in a few places that the novel missed a trick by the level of comfort the unnamed narrator seems used to. We meet his parents and they seem affluent. He sleeps on other people’s sofas, never paying rent, and no one ever questions him about this. Reminiscent of that line from Withnail & I:

In fact, the whole thing is reminiscent of Withnail & I, especially the idea of choice. All of the characters are living in squalor as a lifestyle decision. Let’s go to another pop culture reference and bang in Jarvis Cocker’s line “if you called your dad you could stop it all”. For all the Hackney hipsters in The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes, comfort is available, is there, is at a reach. Tuscany is a common holiday destination, their parents live in nice houses in rural England if they wanna get out of the city. Domesticity as presented as an evil by Gallon’s narrator is very much a middle class domesticity. Getting a dog, the evil action that signals the end of youth[ix], is a middle class signifier, a pet is intrinsically a luxury, especially one that is a breed, not a mongrel, as every dog in the text is. Pedigree dogs aren’t cheap, I know because I’ve bought one[x], the idea of working in bars as a precursor to something more “serious” or “worthy” or “adult” is a little patronising to people who spend their whole careers in hospitality.

The narrator’s life is an adventure, he has parents and a home to go to, a girlfriend he can move in with and a dog-filled future ahead of him. He isn’t trapped in the city, homelessness and unemployment aren’t fearful things for him because there is always somewhere he can crash. So although I initially described this novella as “gritty”, it’s not, because there isn’t really any threat. The threat – if one exists – is in the narrator succumbing to a heteronormative nuclear family life, which he kinda does, happily. The idea of dogs controlling people is an entertaining metaphor, or a fun idea, but Gallon doesn’t hold onto it or go into it any deeper than that. The narrator has his suspicions about sentient dogs, he decides it’s correct, refers to it throughout, never expands.

If I sound overly critical, I apologise, but I’ve a) been asked for an honest opinion and b) I find it difficult to give praise without also giving criticism, and I’m about to get pretty praisy.

There are moments of great joy and real emotional depth within The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes. In fact, there were a few sections I circled in my copy of the book that work as great little vignettes. This, looking back, was my favourite:

Evan came in looking jowly. He brought his short Scottish hair and black glasses with him, eyes you mistake for a frown but they’re smiling in faint autistic consternation. ‘5am Saint and a-’
‘Malbec?’ I can still finish his one sentence for him. Pint of ale and a Malbec for his wife. When I started there she had long blonde hair. By then she was bald. Chemotherapy, said Dee. Rumours of leukaemia, maybe, cap on, blue scarf. ‘5am Saint-’
‘And a Malbec?’ Of course I was already pouring it. Evan smiled. Pleasurable state of late night hesitancy. Glancing over at his wife perpetually. Did his eyes frown? Lips in a constant state of pursing. He’d hold her gaze across the room and hold her hands across their table.

This works on its own, and that last sentence, oof: a beautiful piece about love and mortality, capitalised Art’s two great themes. If Gallon can write so touchingly of love, it’s clear he doesn’t believe in romance as a horror, and this belief seeps into the text. A man railing against the end of his youth is a common theme, but the nameless narrator doesn’t really rail, he accepts it before he has to, it’s almost like he’s trying to persuade himself to feel an anger he doesn’t feel. The narrator is charmed by a life he claims to hate far too easily: he’s ready for it and he wants it: his interest in dogs’ eyes and their “power to control” never becomes fully formed because he doesn’t believe in it. The narrator wishes he didn’t have the small c conservative leanings that are inherent to him and his middle class peers: they all kinda want the nice, cushy, life their parents have, and for all of them it’s an option.

I enjoyed The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes, I liked its dirt and its truth and its tone and its use of language.

If you want to experience East London hipster bartender life like it actually is, read this book. This is exactly it. If you want a portrait of working class London, you’re in the wrong place. This is the London of artsy, hipsterish, over-educated, self-important, middle-class wasters like myself. If you’re interested in that, Gallon gets it down as accurately as anyone could.

Gallon’s at his best when he writes about people and places and things. The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes succeeds when there is no pretence, just descriptions of life as lived. Gallon is a keen observer and expert chronicler of hipster East London. Whether that’s the “real” East London is someone else’s argument to have, and not one – rightly or wrongly – that the text engages with.

Buy it for your bartender housemate with three degrees, or your favourite middle class drug dealer.

An interesting read and definitely not boring.

I’m off to walk my dog and bang a negroni. Until later: keep reading, folks!

BUY THIS BOOK

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About the dickhead who wrote this review

Scott Manley Hadley blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com and is currently writing a series of articles about being young and bald for Huffington Post.

[i] I don’t know how and when to use this form of who. I suppose I should, given that I have two English degrees. I’m gonna leave it like this and hope the guys at Open Pen make me look more literate than I am.

ED – Would then have to actually edit. Would also render this notation redundant, which would be a shame because I like it when you mention that you have two English degrees all the time. [It’s whom.]

[ii] I’ve recently received online abuse to this effect. Here I respond to someone trying to offend me by anonymously messaging me: “kill yourself, you hipster faggot”: https://triumphofthenow.com/2016/07/25/kill-yourself-you-hipster-faggot/

[iii] There’s one reference to negronis in the whole book, though, which either dates the text or shows that me and Gallon aren’t quite so similar after all…

[iv] Which means “Gross Profit”, though Gallon doesn’t say and doesn’t seem to acknowledge this might be something a reader wouldn’t know. Likewise, the afore-mentioned Pub Watch meetings. What are they? I reckon you could work it out from the context, but I didn’t have to, because I’ve been to several. I almost miss them, they evidenced that no one else working in hospitality in the area was half as tired, half as hungover or half as articulate as me. Created simultaneous senses of “I’m better than this” and “I’m not good enough for this”, which cancelled each other out and allowed an easy forgetfulness of my own stagnation. As did all the booze.

[v] I myself am honest to a fault, but am very good at thinking of ways to steal. I found a glitch in the till system in the last bar I worked in whereby it would’ve been possible to steal cash without leaving any trace (i.e. stock discrepancies), but rather than exploit that, I told the bosses like a good boy. What a man.

[vi] The main legal high I’m referring to here is caffeine. People who’ve never ridden the brown donkey don’t how deep you can go. When I used to do dull office work I figured out that the most wasted I could get at 9.30am (without suspicion or judgement) was to drink an entire, strong, cafetiere of Taylors of Harrogate’s ‘Hot Lava Java’. If you’ve never done that, you haven’t lived.

[vii] When my dog was a tiny puppy, he did a bit of diarrhoea in a hidden spot that I didn’t discover for months. I couldn’t clean it as it’s permanently fused to the exposed floorboards. Here’s a picture:

[viii] What the earlier-mentioned point about my friend living with Gallon’s brother means is that I know people who know Gallon, our degree of separation is one at best, in fact we may have even crossed paths or piss streams in a warehouse in Hackney at some point over the last few years. We may have made friends, we may have chatted, too intoxicated to remember, over a pile of books on a handmade coffee table. Gallon is so close to me it is genuinely possible that we have already touched. And that’s actually a bit creepy. The characters in his book are also based on people I may have met. The narrator – no name – has a friend called Max who works in a craft beer pub [before his music career takes off]. I have a friend called Max who works in a craft beer pub.

ED – And he writes too, of course, and he writes well.

[ix] I’ve had a dog since the winter and I am still as selfish and reckless as I ever was, I just have a furry bundle of fluff to cuddle as I lie on my bed, staring at the ceiling, hungover, shaking, in the middle of the afternoon. Help me.

[x] Expensive, but worth every fucking penny. If I could, I’d buy one every week. Check out my Instagram feed for shitloads of pictures of my dog, plus loads of videos of me singing Tom Jones songs. @smanleyhadley