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The Great British Brexit Novel

in Essays/Musings by

A speculation on the future of cultural production in the post-Brexit age.

The Great British Brexit Novel is a phrase that is likely to adorn the blurbs of numerous books published in the decade to begin five years hence. Many will be written by figures of the UK literary establishment—the beginning of Martin Amis’ late-late period and similar—and chart the confusion experienced by the metropolitan elite over this transition, perhaps juxtaposed against some reified examples of provincial authenticity. Others, by younger writers more known for their scathing, poetic social commentary, will attempt extended prose meditations on the futures of a generation isolated by their parents and grandparents.

… the novel itself will use humour that is not overly wry, dry or dark, but rather a humour that is in some way open. And in that motion of opening, communicate a sense of real loss. A loss that, if dwelled on too directly, would be a paralytic.

Depending on the future of the BBC’s funding, documentary segments will air on either BBC 4 (or BBC Radio 4) in which a member of the media elite (a subset of the ever-ready to be satirised metropolitan elite) will lend a sympathetic ear to a younger writer of colour, as she explains how, in writing her recent novel, it was important to draw out the parallels between the prejudice people of her generation are suffering and that of her grandparents when they first arrived in the country. Despite the sophisticated level of her craft in her work, which allows these parallel lines to be both distinct and at the same time blurred, and is more than worthy of recognition, she is likely to receive it only in the form of first novel awards from small trade publications and denied it from more mainstream categories.

A satirist of Amis’ ilk, though unlikely to be Amis himself, will put together a short novel focusing on the political games that were played leading up to the turmoil following the vote. This novel will focus mainly on the internal ambitions and hubris of the conservative party under Cameron. Nigel Farage will only be featured as a supporting character, a provocateur on the side-lines. This novel, in addition to another thoroughly referenced text by a leading journalist, will form the basis of a four part television mini-series on these events. Under the current funding scheme, one would expect this to be produced for the BBC, however, if defunding trends continue then it will likely be taken on by Channel 4. This will structurally compromise the show, as it will require the insertion of substantially more exposition to maintain continuity over commercial breaks.

Bullingdon club Macon
The Bullingdon Club Dining Society featuring David Cameron and Boris Johnson in their Oxford days.

A few years later, hopefully someone of the satirical caliber of Chris Morris will make something for television that is at once more obliquely related to the subject and yet, simultaneously, more incisive. There will be opinion pieces, in newspapers of record, that will attempt to relate this later series to Brexit, but the show’s creator will be at pains to make clear that this work is really about something more foundational. This is of course also true of Brexit itself.

Some books will perhaps be written that celebrate the decision, but a piece of writing dedicated the preemptive critique of the obvious flaws in these works would be many thousands of words longer, and of interest to exactly no one.

But the true holder of the moniker The Great British Brexit Novel will place Brexit firmly in background of the myriad of more pressing things that caused it. This will not be a mere archaeology of causes. Such a focus would be somewhat lacking as the centre of a great piece of literature. No, the machinations of neoliberalism being allowed to eat itself fit better with the white heat of some form of more direct social criticism.

Time will need to pass for what this novel describes to come to the fore, and as such the specifics would be difficult to pin down and even harder to convincingly communicate directly. However, once whatever devices of form and structures of narrative are stripped away, the book’s conceptual core will infest the reader with the profound sadness of a world in foreclosure.

This is not to say it will be without humour. Four to six hundred pages without humor would only communicate the intention of portents, which would drown out its actuality. The reviews will have no problem with this however, even those written in preemption. But the novel itself will use humour that is not overly wry, dry or dark, but rather a humour that is in some way open. And in that motion of opening, communicate a sense of real loss. A loss that, if dwelled on too directly, would be a paralytic. Which would be something the author, as they appear in the text, would be loathed to engender.

Still friends?

The kernel at the centre of this novel will be nothing more than the tendency towards entropy. What some see here is the death and isolation of everything that seems to be other, in order to contain the comfort of relative certainty. The death drive of the collective. Of course, this would all be put more artfully. It would perhaps have to shift registers in a way too, as this whole thing is totally fraught. There are of course moments that will require great solemnity and a pithy turn of phrase but this would be unsustainable for a work of the length required to explore this issue’s complexity.

What it would need to get across, at its most basic, is an ontological notion. That things can only happen when stuff comes into contact with other stuff. And while the things that happen when this contact occurs will not always only be good, without that ability to interact they can also never really be better than they are already. This should be taken to mean that the only way in which we have been able to achieve anything is through heat produced by contact and friction.

Of course such explosions of friction are themselves productive of entropy, and the heat they produce can be carelessly used to burn everything to such an extent that only those with resources can rebuild. Indeed that is what has happened. And as such, by not recognising the entropic consequences of this precious friction, we have allowed people to gain popularity by promising to ban flint.  We have produced a population that dreams of rules that are so binding they would remove the need for their own enforcement, when what we need is the ambition to engage in endless negotiation.

However it is done in practice, the instigation of this ambition would be the true achievement of the Great British Brexit novel. Out of the depiction of a world that wishes itself out of existence, because it has been made terrified of complexity by the long betrayal optimism, will arise the desire to create new connections and relations. The question will be if this spark will find kindling.

Macon has spent the last four years trying to shoehorn Infinite Jest into a PhD about popular music and capitalism. He managed to do this by making it about something called sonic fiction. He is one half of the podcasting team and the reason why the critical theory section is an odd mix of Adorno and Deleuze & Guattari. For many months he was mistaken for a ghost that had decided to haunt the store, but it was just him editing his thesis and/or the podcast. Here he writes about things which might be true or are entirely made up.

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