Patrick Langley: Arkady
by Alex Quicho
Summer in London can be temperate, all cloud and shifting breeze, but sometimes it’s stultifying. Time becomes treacle and the city’s waterways bloom with algae’s chemical green. Extremity turns ominous. An oppressive atmosphere becomes synonymous with worldly chaos, as it did in Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04, where hurricanes were seeded in the ocean below New York and “unseasonable warmth” signalled mild apocalypse. The summers I’ve spent here have seen stabbings and riots, people turned out into the streets and flowers wrapped around light posts where cops had killed kids. A crackdown on knife crimes meant a rise in attacks that used only acid – the liquid sizzling as it corroded skin, the zip-tie rip of motorbikes escaping down slip-roads following. There was an anxiety of knowing that danger often lay concealed, which curdled into panic when it arrived in the open. The burning alive of 71 people in Grenfell Tower in 2017 solidified an inkling that was as constant as weather: the once-welfare state cared no longer for its poor, sick or precarious, and many lives in this surface-wealthy city hang threateningly in the balance. Within this atmosphere, Patrick Langley’s debut novel Arkady (2018) takes place.
The book opens with a surrealistic vignette, where trauma is painted in the inky blues and ochres of the nighttime Mediterranean. Brothers Jackson and Frank face their mother’s disappearance and then their father’s breakdown with the calm bewilderment of children. It’s a believable origin story, the root of the brothers’ everyday context in inhospitable London and the only time the narrative strays outside of England. Try as he might to repress it, the event becomes an island in Jackson’s mind. Journeys towards it, however oblique, plunge him into feral panic, suffocating him in the city’s swell. Otherwise precocious in adolescence, confident to explore derelict buildings and construction sites, he’s also susceptible to panic attacks where “he’ll be struck by a delirious dread that makes his fingers and forearms fizz. His heartbeat spikes and his throat feels strangled by invisible hands. He doesn’t think he might possibly be about to die – he knows he is.”
Of these he tells no one – not Frank, not his caregiver, Leonard, who lives in a tower block not unlike Grenfell, in the style of social housing endemic to London. Like many endemic species, they’re slowly dying out, replaced by ferocious new builds that never deliver on promises of affordable living. Leonard’s apartment block is emptied by the state. Life drains out of it – where once flags “billowed here and there, like sails,” and tendrils of ivy crawled down balconies crammed with bicycles and clothing lines, “now it had the look of a dead thing, an architectural corpse.” The victims of the Grenfell fire died from state neglect: flammable cladding, chosen over a safer alternative by a scrimpy developer, turned the building into a flaming tomb. Today it, too, is an “architectural corpse” – a sky-scraping monument to the cruelty of neoliberal politics and free-market capital, its victims entombed in an obelisk of black ash. The boys’ fate is more slowly enacted, though no less toxic for its gradual creep. “Fewer lights in the windows. Letters slid under doors. Court cases between tenants and landlords fizzled out in defeat for the former. Protests were quietly ignored. Families vanished, there one evening, gone the next. Men in hardhats and hi-vis waistcoats materialised, sealing the doors of freshly vacated flats with sheets of perforated metal. They cling-filmed the windows and poured concrete down the toilets. None of it made sense.”
The boys’ solution to deranging loss is escape. What else do you do when no one else wants you, when your lived reality is a deliberately “inhospitable environment” engineered by the government to punish, deter and erase?
Langley avoids totalizing language. You can see him scalpelling out what over-serves, offloading words too bloated with connotation. Police become blackvests. Helicopters are asters, like the plant. London, well, is nothing at all. The city’s name is never mentioned, attuning readers instead to the unique texture of its hinterlands: crushed glass and asphalt, gnawed chicken bones and scrubgrass, the filthy waterways crisscrossing it in secret, another mazy layer to its labyrinth. Explored at the narrative pace of Jackson’s bicycle, or an even slower circumnavigation by foot, the massive city becomes known through its minutiae, the tiny pebbles that jump with every passing rumble of dread. Foreign to the literary Londons of before, it’s a London that feels faithful to the one that I know now: one where squatters can occupy millionaires’ mansions, kipping on the marble floors and unfurling antifa flags from the balconies; one where the empty lot you raved in one week is bulldozed, built over the next; one where, in spite of its weighty history, traces of habitation can vanish as quickly as if they were in water.
More than simply an “Oulipian restraint” in Langley’s writing process, the loss of “London” – like Jackson’s panic attacks – is also a post-traumatic response, emblematizing the acute anxiety that can heighten awareness of one’s immediate surroundings while deadening the superfluous past. The abstraction is deliberate in demonstrating how the terms we use to describe politics are often, in life, obscure or inadequate. With absence comes openness – and the boys find solace, not in idealism, but in all flawed and possible utopias. After they lose their foster home, that vestige of the kinder welfare state, they turn to squats and communes, living anarchically on the fringes. This, too, rings contemporaneous: not only in the fertile allotments sprouting kale and marijuana, or the music and ideas shared at leisure, but in what hinders and splinters the radical community – like the inconclusive doldrums of non-hierarchical meetings, and the paralyzing fury of working against a ubiquitous enemy.
Arkady’s themes fall in step with other novels addressing the emergency of the present. Man Booker – nominated Autumn (2016), by Ali Smith, presents a similarly smoothed and emptied crisis, where refugees’ bodies appear in dreams about the ocean and Brexit occurs in micro-metaphor – a mysterious, policed fence drawn across land adjacent to the narrator’s home – that reveals how quickly the book was written, responding in near real-time to the referendum’s paradigm shift. Moshin Hamid’s Exit West (2017) deletes place names in the Western habit of taking ruined Middle Eastern capitals as interchangeable casualties, but also omits all arduous, dangerous journeys as a central narrative conceit. By blacking out the most known aspects of the migration crisis, Hamid is able to better tell its psychological experience. ”There are no descriptions of life-or-death journeys in the backs of lorries or on flimsy dinghies,” writes Sukhdev Sandhu of the book. “No middle passages. Just the cognitive shock of having been freshly transplanted to tough new terrains.”
Arkady’s central thesis, if it has one, is uttered via ventriloquism; on a sun-baked rooftop, Jackson reads Foucault aloud from his phone in sophomoric reverence. (Frank zones out.) The line, on heterotopias, centres around a boat – “a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and…” The boys find one abandoned in a canal, low-slung and tarry with filth. When they’re finally loosed from the city – forcibly evicted from the settlement and caught in a violent clash with the blackvests – the water’s trackless waste becomes a godsend to their undetected flight. The name they choose for the boat, Arkady, could mean arcadia, that pastoral utopia. It’s also the name of the Russian spy poisoned, coincidentally, in the surreal city, just months after the book’s publication. “It has something to do with how global events trickle into and alter the psyche; how zeitgeists are felt in the blood,” said Langley in an interview with Hotel, remarking on the constellated events that – like light bouncing between the hard, shining buildings – spirit up the beginning of the end.