In ‘Walthamstow Central’, author Ellis Sharp pushes the boundaries of what readers have come to expect from literature. Part other-worldly police procedural, part science fiction thriller, part political diatribe, with these components alone the novel would be fascinating. But more interesting is the engagement with the artifice of the text. The lines between author and authored, between reality and fiction, between character and history and time are all blurred, and this technique pervades every element of the novel.
Sharp’s narrative technique is underpinned by a certain sense of weariness, both with life and with fiction, and this tiredness is shared by his characters. In a telling early scene, PC Daisy Spenser converses with PC Andy Scurr in his home. The narrator asserts that “the dialogue was as banal as the interior of the kitchen in Scurr’s flat”; minutes later, Daisy makes her excuses to leave:
“Your speech has a cold, narcotic quality. It’s dead.” […] “The sooner we stop this dialogue the better.” (All quotes p.39-40)
These lines are issued and acknowledged without comment, accepted as part of the world in which the characters operate – or, more precisely, the narrative. Indeed, immediately after her departure Daisy reflects momentarily on Scurr, before realising that her mind is open, that her interior monologue is exposed for all to see. She draws a mental curtain before her taxi driver reads her thoughts. It’s perhaps too late, as the reader has already parsed them.
Even a simple exchange such as this is telling. There’s a critical weariness with the mundane triviality of human social interaction, the cold and passionless sexual endeavours of men like Scurr. Observations about the banality of this dialogue, of the emptiness of the setting, not only characterise the voices and faces of ‘Walthamstow Central’, but also critique the lack of ambition and imagination in fiction that does not seek to step beyond this. There are other tidbits to support this thesis (it is quite evident when reading the novel, but for the purposes of this review I must cite), including something Time Penetration Team agent Strobey reads on the train:
“For a long time I have felt that writing which is not ostensibly self-conscious is in a vital way inauthentic for our times.” (p.235)
This is clearly something with which Ellis agrees, littered as his story is with references to authorial mastery, the overbearing control of narrative drive, the “intertextual transmigration” (p.61) of characters, the references to the politics and events of the time in which the book was written (“Because of the demonstrations in the text and the demonstrations Ellis Sharp had gone on against the impending war on Iraq, against the outbreak of war, and against the subsequent military occupation, it had taken two years longer than planned to get the Zeilinger Collider
built written.” [p.105]).
A quick Google reveals that the quote above is drawn from Alex Trocchi’s 1961 ‘Cain’s Book’, which CultureCourt.com describes as “a seminal junky journal of vivid, lyrical fragments where “I” is the unity, self-reference the dream” (source). According to this source, Trocchi continues “my friends will know what I mean when I say that I deplore our contemporary industrial writers”. Ellis Sharp clearly feels similarly, although he specifies “late capitalist narrative convention” (p.254) as the source of much literary banality.
I have not yet devoted any time to describing the central story of ‘Walthamstow Central’. Although part of the fun of the novel is learning its world, it does not hurt to know in advance that the novel revolves around two main groups of people, favouring one of two main timelines (timeplaces?), with one historical development on the near horizon.
In Finn’s Hotel by Walthamstow Central station, Ben Scaravelli and his friends dream of radical futures and pasts, of the promise of victory and the reality of failure. Amongst this group is one Edgar Strobey, an agent sent to kill the legendary Anarch leader Mirando Mirando. Strobey and Mirando both hail from a posthuman far future, one in which Mirando and her Anarchs have come to present a significant threat to the established order. Although the Anarchs succeeded in undermining the Theo/DemoKracies they fight, by the outset of the novel they have been effectively defeated by murderous smear tactics and callous political repression. Thus it is that Mirando decides on a far larger and greater plot, travelling back into “Nether Time” London – tentatively pegged at around 2018 – where the bulk of the novel’s events are set.
The second group of characters comprises detective constables Buller and Aphrodite Cutter alongside police constables Spenser and Scurr. Initially they are investigating disappearances: people around the city have begun to vanish, without warning, in impossible ways. Still worse, their cohabitants have reported continuing to hear the voices of the disappeared. Later, these four cops also turn their attentions to the robberies committed by the residents of Finn’s Hotel.
At this point in Nether Time – a detail overlooked by most of the characters of the period – the opening and activation of the Zeilinger Collider approaches, a construct that the government states will put the UK “at the forefront of advances in the field of high-energy physics research.” (p.25)
Plot aside, it is in its literary and political concerns that the real heart of ‘Walthamstow Central’ can be seen. In an encounter with Henry James, small-time revolutionary Ben – at this point enjoying his own fantasies come to life, of the tearing down of bourgeois institutions and fighting the good fight – asks:
“You never mentioned the genocide. All those dead Indians. Why not?”
James shrugs, and replies:
“It didn’t seem important. It wasn’t what interested me.” (p.233)
The point, ultimately, is that literature should engage fully with the world, that it should explore consequences fully, reject apologism for and rationalisation of the misdeeds of power, and step outside the author’s narrow personal concerns, but that it need not to do so in a literal fashion. Instead, the novelist can explore ideas and realities in a vibrant, imaginative and exciting manner. Most contemporary fiction, Sharp appears to be arguing, does neither of these things. It refuses to engage with the wider world outside the bourgeois concerns of middle-class alienation, but at the same time constrains itself to a representation that is tediously realist.
My initial plan was to attempt to review this novel in a metatextual manner: to attempt to produce something that blurred the lines between criticism and fiction, in a similar way to how the novel blurs the many lines its generic, literary and political fusions draw. Sadly, after a number of aborted attempts, I had to abandon these efforts. I lacked the skill to achieve what I was trying to do. Ellis Sharp did not: ‘Walthamstow Central’ is the most interesting, bold and successful novel I have read in many years.
Zoilus Press (no web presence, bizarrely)