Violent Solutions to Popular Problems

M.J. Nicholls

Sagging Meniscus


In “The Pomo Martyr”, one of the ten short stories in this collection, a narrator who sounds very like M.J. Nicholls enthuses over how postmodernism “chimed with my fondness for attention-seeking and making a fool of myself in a comedic way to drum up readerly affection for me through my prose”.

He goes on to lament that being both Scottish and postmodern are somehow mutually exclusive, and that any writer with ambition would have to jettison one or the other. In the story, a chaotic panel at a conference kickstarts a literary revolution that makes metafiction Scotland’s genre of choice. In real life, Nicholls’ recklessly inventive books have made little impact on the mainstream but have earned him critical plaudits as a writer who is playful but political: an absurdist with one foot planted firmly in the real world.

He’s a comic novelist at heart, so his fascination with postmodernism is impish, provocative, irreverent. If there’s one thing Nicholls doesn’t seem to have time for, it’s realism. Why make do with dreary naturalistic dialogue when a character grandly declaring her home to be “the topological crumbs of Orkney” is so much fun?

In “Librarian of the Year”, the Orcadian librarian Isobel (who can’t resist pomo namedropping of both her creator, M.J. Nicholls, and her former flatmate, Marcus Schott, protagonist of a previous Nicholls novel) is preparing to receive an award from Liam Neeson to mark her transformation of the populace “from a subliterate mess of rustics, fondling ewes in sheepcotes” into book lovers. But she encounters Clara from Wick, whose partner has just left her, taking the manuscript of Clara’s novel. Isobel promises to help track it down, but changes her mind when she reads extracts from it.

Some will find Nicholls’ whimsical verbosity smug and grating, but beneath the frivolity there’s a sharper edge. In the title story, written as five separate dialogues, interviewees justify using violence to alleviate problems caused by squatters, disobedient voters, pro-lifers, far-right MPs and plummeting viewing figures. “The State of Texas: a Travelogue” brings a Scottish writer to the USA to speak to several “disruptors” – Texan resistance movements – such as a group smuggling pregnant women out of the state and the self-explanatory Libtriggers, who have progressed to livestreaming school shootings in 4K HD.

The titular character of “Heath’s Ledger” keeps a journal to help him balance the pain and pleasure he receives into equal amounts, consequently drifting into an S&M lifestyle. Elsewhere, in the highly stratified society brought into being by the Social Re-order, gay people have to pass themselves off as straight couples to get housing, a process that involves having sex in front of examiners.

Sometimes the dizzying rush of ideas stalls. The formally experimental “Downfall of the Dans: A Comic Opera” is fine, but carries with it the deflated feeling one associates with a disappointing edition of Inside No. 9. “A Fool in the Froth”, in which an alienated young student’s search for his perfect coffee house doubles as a philosophical quest, limps along behind its brasher siblings.

There’s a sense of winding down in the final section, “The Bardo of Abandoned Characters”, a tour through the liminal space inhabited by the likes of the Self-Satirising Character, the Character who Bedded Keith Richards for the Noblest of Reasons and the Lavatorial Revenge Character, all briefly toyed with before being set aside. The ideas are thinning out as we watch. But these glimpses of unwritten stories show that this fertile, febrile imagination is constantly in motion, and there are no signs of it slowing down.