JUSTINE by Alice Thompson

reviewed by Fin Keegan

SPEAKING TO “Time Out New York” recently, novelist Patrick McCabe (The Butcher Boy) made the point that the narrators of his novels tend to be Social Fantastics, that is, unreliable to a degree that allow a novelist to remain a Realist while, in the guise of depicted reality, including material drawn from the far shores of human possibility. Don Quixote is the greatest Social Fantastic in literature, though Cervantes affords us the company of the sceptical Sancho Panza–as most contemporary Social Fantasists do not–so as to play up the richly ironic contrasts between the “real” world (sheep; windmills) running alongside the hero’s fevered imaginings (knights; damsels).  

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The modern Social Fantastic, from Nabokov’s Charles Kinbote to James Kelman’s Sammy in How Late It Was How Late (and, one could argue, Harry Potter) is a character who radically reorders their world in order to stave off psychological or emotional extinction. Deciding to use this device is a veritable Open Sesame for contemporary writers, hemmed in as they are by the strictures of Fictional Realism, since writers, unlike dramatists or filmmakers, can play endlessly and fruitfully with the intrinsically allusive nature of the written word. (Thus the recent film of Don Quixote fails at the first fence, being unable to simultaneously present us with both Quixote’s and Panza’s mutually contradictory perspectives).
And, now that we all live in a space of mutually agreed mediocrity, governed by the twin poles of advertising and consumption (if you can read this, as the bumper stickers say, you’re too close) neurotic mental states transformed into full-blown Guernicas are increasingly tempting for First World novelists, hide-bound by the spiritual and philosophical deprivation of their communities and, by and large, their own lives.

I know little of Alice Thompson’s day to day life but the unnamed, hedonist-dilettante of her short novel Justine is a thoroughgoing Social Fantastic, taking us around the bend of the bifurcated reality which gives rise to this book: our hero slides off the rails of contemporary FCUK/KFC London in grand style, in a Poe-like story heavy with the putrid scent of literary debauch.
The novel follows an Art collector’s search through a shadowy, sulpherous London for the model of one of his portraits, a painting that periodically comes to life before him as he loses himself in the “lilac spirals” of opium. But one should always be careful what one wishes for: a la Hitchcock or Bunuel our young man finds this mysterious creature not once but twice over, in the shape of sisters identical in appearence but utterly opposite in character.

Thompson, a one-time member of the Woodentops (an Eighties rock band, folks, not a revolutionary movement) is preserved from the ultimately shallow roots of the contemporary genre that has sprung from Social Fantasy by a sharp authorial eye that has earned her comparisons to fellow Scot Muriel Spark: this, together with the intense brevity of the chapters, also bring the late Penelope Fitzgerald to mind. This is a fine little book.

Fin Keegan

Read Chapter One of this book.

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