The Red Men by Matthew de Abaitua
Reviewed by Martin Lewis
09 January 2008
The cover of The Red Men predisposes me to dislike the book. The marketing creates the expectation of a novel of, well, I'm not sure if the genre even has a name but I am going to call it Urban Cool. The fact that de Abaitua was a contributor to Disco Biscuits, the 1999 anthology celebrating the second summer of love, only reinforces this impression. The novel also bears a cover quote which says that it "makes Michel Houllebecq seem like Enid Blyton." This leads one to believe that a) it is nothing like Blyton, b) it is nothing like Houllebecq, and c) the authors of both the quote and the book are cocks. In fact I couldn't be more sympathetic to The Red Men's aims, the comparison to Houllebecq is not too far fetched (although obviously it is nothing like Blyton), and the book is actually at least partially about trying not to be a cock. The comparison stems from a seam of fierce misanthropy and intellectual despair evident in the work of both writers, but there is a humanity to The Red Men that is entirely alien to Houllebecq's work. This is a novel about growing up and making your accommodations with the world, concepts you imagine the Frenchman would scorn:
George Orwell wrote that after the age of thirty the great mass of human beings abandon individual ambition and live chiefly for others. I agree with his insight, but it is no cause for despair ... Some of my friends regard my loss of ambition with great sadness. No, I reply, you outgrow it. (p. 58)
This sentiment is voiced by the novel's protagonist, Nelson Millar. Millar spent his twenties as the Nathan Barley-esque editor of a magazine called Drug Porn (surely no comparison to Vice is intended). By the time we meet him though, he is a reformed character: he has put away childish things, started working for the Monad corporation and, like so many Hoxditch "creatives" before him, migrated up Kingsland Road to the leafy-yet-still-gritty environs of Hackney. It is notable that the opening paragraph is given over to a description of Millar brushing his daughter's hair. There is a sense that she has saved him. It is a touching, well sketched domestic scene that shows how Millar's life has been anchored (although it is equally notable that his wife doesn't make an appearance for another 200 pages). And so, against expectations, we find ourselves in a drama of the quotidian. Everyone has to step outside their front door, though, and outside Millar's door all is not well.
The book is set tomorrow, both in the sense that it takes place in the nameless near future and in the sense that it takes place the morning after the night before. The party of the Twentieth Century is over and the new millennium is the comedown. Everything is slightly broken. The world that de Abaitua's characters inhabit makes them feel very strange indeed. When Millar gets his poet friend Raymond Chase an interview at Monad the refusenik finds the experience overwhelming:
"I was so angry, I was having an out-of-body experience. This over-shaven gargoyle presiding over an office of angels, with his science-fiction computer and his little man-tits, it was so unreal. I had no precedent." (p. 39)
Obviously, he gets the job. What Monad does is create Red Men, simulated copies of humans, designed to ease the burden on the modern executive. However, they end up becoming caricatures, extremist splinter personalities that come back to haunt their original selves. Undeterred by this psychotic defect in their product, Monad embark on an even more ambitious project: to create Redtown, a simulation of an entire town in the Liverpool commuter belt. Tasked with this mission Millar finds his carefully constructed life starting to unravel.
There is clearly a strong autobiographical flavour to the novel. Okay, I doubt de Abaitua works for an inscrutable, semi-evil corporation making AIs, but he is an ex-magazine editor, Hackney resident, and son of Liverpool. The Red Men is a book that has come from a lot of places (geographically or otherwise), most of which the author has been to. Keen personal observations about the world he inhabits—and there are many—are the best parts of this book. It is hard to write badly about London since the city throws up its own characters and serves up its own stories on a daily basis, but de Abaitua is particularly good, especially on Hackney:
I would describe Hackney as gamey. It gives off the high whiff of bohemian liberalism left out too long in the sun. (p. 60)
When writing about the borough his tone wavers between realism and hyperrealism, love and contempt, but the insight remains acute throughout. It is de Abaitua's adopted home rather than his actual one that provides most fire, though, and when the story transfers to the North West much of its potency is lost.
This switch also adds to the reader's growing sense of dislocation, mirroring that of the book's characters. After starting in the heart of Millar's world, the first half of the novel is given over to a cyberpunk-tinged existential literary thriller centred around Chase. We then move back to Millar and his struggle with work and family in Redtown before dropping off the edge of reality entirely. Psychotropic paganism, "occult terrorism" (p. 223) of the sort beloved by Grant Morrison, starts to take a grip on the book. (Indeed the acknowledgements include nods to Morrison, Alan Moore, and SF Gnostic-in-Chief Philip K Dick.) A manic, gonzo quality begins to pervade things:
I looked with horror at the wafer. "This is ridiculous, I am not eating this." I handed the wafer back to him. He refused it.
"I'm giving you a direct order! Take the drug!"
"This is not the military, Bruno! We work in marketing!"
"We work in the future!" screamed Bruno. "And this is how the future gets decided." (p. 224)
The number of exclamation marks speaks for itself.
This isn't a novel you can get an easy grip on; like the famous elephant surrounded by blind men, its shape and texture suggest differing beasts depending on where you grab it. Literary thriller and domestic drama, thought experiment and drug trip, cyberpunk and technopagan, satire and prophecy. It is almost as if de Abaitua is worried that he will only get one chance and has consequently crammed all his ideas into one novel.
It may make a virtue of its dislocation, but unfortunately the stranger The Red Men gets the less interesting it becomes. Reading it, I was reminded that one of the best science fiction novels of the last five years, The Cryptographer by Tobias Hill, was about a tax inspector auditing a businessman. SF might have just about got over the fact its moonbase future isn't going to happen, but it still has a tendency to think big. In fact, the future is more likely to be evolutionary than revolutionary and tomorrow will be much like today. So I wished we had stayed with Nelson and Iona in Hackney, and that de Abaitua had continued to tell the story of a man's life at home and work in the broken world of tomorrow. But whatever its flaws, The Red Men is an exciting and confident debut which de Abaitua clearly has the skill to exceed.