In 2016, the poet, rapper, spoken-word artist and dramatist Kate Tempest published her debut novel The Bricks that Built the Houses. In many ways, it is a book about ‘all that is meaningless’: There is alcohol, drugs and nights out, there is desperation form trying to make meets end, and finally, there is this peculiar sense of life’s overwhelming futility and elementary dysfunctionality. The gesture of making them the subject worthy of being retold does not in any way dignify them, rather, it simply captures and amplifies their underlying dramatic and existential load, exploding with an unchecked force from pretty much the very first page of the novel. And from there we continue on a constant ascent.
The Bricks that Built the Houses is one of those books of which it makes little sense to ask ‘What it is about?’ If only for the simple reason that there is just too much going on across its 399 pages. Replying that it is about Becky, a struggling dancer and recreational drug user, and her friends living in London, is as pointless of an answer as stating that Infinite Jest is about Hal, a struggling tennis player and recreational drug user, and his friends living in Boston. To give some sense of what to expect, it seems way more illustrative to note that if this book were a movie, it would be something of a blend between Human Traffic, Amores Perros, Sweet Sixteen and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. If you know how much Tempest is capable of covering in the hour-long poetic performance of Let Them Eat Chaos, you can only imagine what she is capable of packing into nearly four hundred pages of prose. If you don’t, well, it’s a lot. So indeed, ‘What?’ is neither an accurate nor a particularly pressing question here, it is rather ‘How?’
The above recourse to cinema is not entirely whimsical, as it gently leads into this ‘How?’ question. The book has a very tangible cinematic energy and potential to it, and I would not be surprised if some day soon an adaptation of it hits the screen. The clarity and vividness of its images are captivating, while the fragmented, almost shot-like quality of the narrative playfully oscillates between the characters’ perspectives. All this bound by an overarching dramatic tension—a matrix of dynamics and antagonisms, colliding with one another, exploding, imploding and displacing all that the protagonists painstakingly try to build. Apart from being so many other things, the book is a ready-made script. If Tempest would not be up for composing the soundtrack herself, I’d like to recommend a poetically kindred spirit in the person of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone (I am positive Roberta C. is Becky’s relative). Maybe the good old Mike Skinner of The Streets could chip in a track or two?
However, the book’s plot and composition only partly explain its appeal. Most importantly, with her unique ability to unfold the drama lurking underneath the mundane, Tempest reminds us here what language is capable of when used with empathy and care. It is the respect with which she treats her characters—with all their strengths and many weaknesses—that resonates through all the registers into which she has decided to tune her voice. No one is too ordinary, nothing is too small or insignificant and nothing is glossed over. The opposite is true: the book is an exercise in radical honesty, which, to me, is the driving motor of the entire text. In the last resort it is the sincerity of the book that is chiefly responsible for its thrill.
The gesture of making them the subject worthy of being retold does not in any way dignify them, rather, it simply captures and amplifies their underlying dramatic and existential load, exploding with an unchecked force from pretty much the very first page of the novel.
In this sense, The Bricks that Built the Houses brings to mind some of the best prose narrating the condition of our generation. Although different in composition, perspective and language, it is a work close in nature to her fellow poet Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. Reading both, one feels that they are approaching the certainty that neither of these texts has been contrived or constructed as artifice, despite both of them being fiction. Tempest, with her book, offers not only a way into this rare delightful moment of the pleasure of text, but, more importantly, the wonder of facing the paradox of a fiction that seems more real than the reality itself. And here is what I find so fascinating: she chooses to speak about the many familiar situations, emotions and struggles that make up our own lives. But it is only when she enunciates them that they reverberate with a significance that our own experience somehow fails to reveal to us. As if we were just deaf until she spoke. This girl talks with a razor—to paraphrase the classic—keep it under her tongue. And she manages all this with a seeming ease, blunt and unapologetic in its beauty. Praised be the prose of the poet.
Last but not least, this novel also, much like Tempest’s lyrical work, is an exercise in social critique. This critique, however, does not happen at the price of the quality of the text as a text. Of the story as a story. Of the narrative as a narrative. They all remain intact and at no point are these formal elements sacrificed in order to make a point or infuse the book with a “stance.” The critical edge is sharp and present, but never superimposed on the plot as a weird and clumsy addition like—for the lack of better examples—it is in the case of John William’s Stoner. Nor is it primarily a gospel to be preached for which fiction is nothing but a fortuitous excuse, like—to use probably the example of all examples—it is in the case of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. The Brick the Built the Houses is a rare example of favouring neither but balancing the two—a symbiotic co-existence of message and form to be cherished. What more is there to say: read this book.
The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest
Let Them Eat Chaos by Kate Tempest
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Human Traffic by Justin Kerrigan
Amores Perros by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Sweet Sixteen by Ken Loach
Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels by Guy Ritchie
‘Roberta C.’ by Casiotone for the Painfully Alone
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
Stoner by John William
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand