Saturday, September 10, 2011

Review of Brooke-Rose's Next, by Brian McHale

Next, Christine Brooke-Rose. (Manchester: Carcanet, 1998)
Review by Brian McHale

Having apparently said farewell to literature in Textermination (1991) and written her memoirs in Remake (1996), Brooke-Rose surprises us with a new novel as strong as anything she has ever written. Here she largely leaves behind the mediascape of her "Intercom Quartet" of the eighties and early nineties and ventures out into the streets to imagine the inner lives and outer wanderings of London's homeless. It's hard to picture Brooke-Rose sleeping rough at seventy-five years old or even interviewing those who do, but however she conducted her research, the result is as plausible and freshly observed as it firsthand. This being a Brooke-Rose novel, there are structural secrets, some of which are revealed by the jacket copy: for instance, there are twenty-six characters, each bearing the name beginning with a different letter of the alphabet, the ten homeless characters spelling out among them the ten letters of the top row of the keyboard (QWERTUIOP). This time around, however, the Oulipian cryptograms and procedures seem less crucial than a couple of features that the text displays on its surface. One element is the book's mapping of street-level, fin-de-millennium London, as we track the homeless on their rounds from doorway doss to homeless shelter to job center and around again, placing Next firmly in the lineage of the great twentieth-century city novels—a London "Wandering Rocks" for the nineties. More extraordinary still is Brooke-Rose's registration of the varieties of London speech (or "Estuarian," as she calls it), ranging from educated bureaucratese through mildly "flavored" standard to immigrant variants to pure, uncut thing itself: "Shi', Olley, wey can't tauwk in this craowd. We'uw loowse each ather anywie. Auw yer neeyd is ter skidadduw." This language is a great discovery, or invention, or whatever it is, and puzzling it out is not only one of the superior pleasures of this text but something like an exercise in sympathy and identification; in struggling to voice this notation, you find yourself imaginatively occupying the space of those whose speech it simulates. It turns out that you can teach an old lady (as she calls herself in Remake) new tricks; or, more to the point, she can teach them to you. [Brian McHale, The Review of Contemporary Fiction]

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