The history of British fiction is littered with seething, working-class writers lambasting society and their dismal lot within it. From Kingsley to Martin Amis, these “angry young men” brutalized pretence and raged against injustice wherever they saw it, and they saw it everywhere. An uncomplicated thing to do in the classist, racist, sectarian, austerity Britain of the ’50s through the ’80s, when the politics were binary and the enemy clear. Not so easy in the current post-modern, anti-engagement, everything-is-ironic climate in which Labour are a laughing stock, the Tories look like Liberals (at least in comparison to their predecessors), and it can be difficult to figure out who exactly to hate, except for the opposing side at the football.
Into this void of mirth and feeling have stepped a new generation of novelists, bringing a sense of levity to the grit, grind, and day-to-day horror of working-class life, particularly as experienced by young women. As before, there are stars of the style, with Caitlin Moran and Emma Jane Unsworth taking over the vacancies left by Martin Amis and Irvine Welsh after they went middle-class and American.
Best known as a columnist who gently mocked the news of the day, Moran’s debut novel How to Build a Girl is set in the heady, uncertain days of the early ’90s, spanning from 1990 to 1993, between the end of Thatcherism and the rise of Tony Blair. The protagonist, 14-year-old Johanna Morrigan, is second-eldest of a Jewish-Irish family of five kids in the economically depressed city of Wolverhampton.
Moran does a very good job of relating the desperation of the situation without preaching. “The future always eventually walked out of the door without us. We have been stuck now on a council flat in Wolverhampton for thirteen years, waiting.” There includes a degree of Thatcher-bashing but is played mostly for laughs: “My father has a very personal and visceral loathing of Margret Thatcher. Growing up, my understanding is that, at some point in the past, she bested my father in a fight that he only just escaped from – and that next time they meet it will be a fight to the death. A bit like Gandalf and Balrog.”
The saving graces of what could otherwise have been a “angry, working-class, drunk dad” stock character are his wicked sense of humour, intelligence, and naive idealism. His personal motto seems to be: “I am the bastard son of Brendan Behan. And all these cunts will bow down to me!” as well as several instances of “we’ll be millionaires!” scheming worthy of Del Boy Trotter. It’s just this sort of attitude that, combined with some happenstance, sets Johanna off on the road to reinvention, transforming herself into Dolly Wilde (a tribute to Oscar Wilde’s scandalous niece) and basically scamming her way into a writing job at a music magazine, a situation that indirectly leads to her becoming a “Lady Sex Adventurer”; her experiences of which are described in excruciating detail.
It’s through researching the modern music the paper covers that she discovers that, “the working classes do things differently. I can hear it. I can see we are not wrong. We are not just poor people who have not yet evolved into something else – i.e., people with money. We are something else.”
More than once, complications that arise to knock Johanna on her back foot, but they’re nothing she can’t handle; the wrenching poverty she is fighting to save her family from is a large part of the reason. The main lesson of the narrative, along with those stated above, is the working-class are not to be taken lightly, and can handle just about anything that is thrown at them. This is made most clear not by Johanna but her hero/best friend, the working-class Welsh musician John Kite, who says: “the difference between the rich and the poor is that the rich are blithe. They believe nothing can ever really be so bad.”
A sentiment that Johanna begins to understands when she is invited to the home of an upper-class colleague/lover along with a group of his usual friends with names that are, “jokes where I come from”, and is underscored during the same visit when, upon realizing just what an unbelievable prick the object of her infatuation really is, she ends an epic speech with “I am the bastard gypsy Jewish son of Brendan Behan,” I say, “and one day, YOU FUCKERS WILL BOW DOWN TO ME,” and thereby truly showing herself to be her father’s daughter, with everything that it entails.
On the other side of the Venn diagram is Unsworth’s Animals. Set in modern-day Manchester, thought to be the coolest place in the world in the early ’90s, the book is narrated by Laura, an early 30s urbanite living with/mooching off her friend Tyler, having as much fun as possible before her impending marriage to a teetotalling concert pianist. The story is a sort of bromance for girls, or, as Unsworth herself described it, “Withnail with girls”.
As with Irvine Welsh, that is about the size of it as far as plot goes. Taking a different tack than most authors, the point of the book is not mainly to tell a compelling, invented fiction in which all the characters and events have an inescapable patina of artificiality, but rather to offer a realistic satire of the 21st-century Western lifestyle.
The greatest strength of the book is its dialogue and character, particularly Laura’s voice and her relationship with Tyler; their conversations at times have a sharp, back and forth, ping-pong quality reminiscent of Tom Stoppard. Laura’s narration gets right into it with, “You know how it is. It’s Saturday and you can’t move.” Her calm, breezy off-hand, been-there-done-that way of introducing the fact she had, in the course of getting drunkenly into bed, managed to partially tie her self to it, “I squinted up at my right arm, which felt like it was levitating — but no, nothing so glamorous.” This also leads to our introduction to Tyler, who is described as, “Five-two with cropped black hair sprung into curls. Face like a fallen putto. Deadly.”
Tyler, indeed a girl, brings things to a new level of random, funny brilliance from her first line on: “In my estimation, girls get tied to beds for two reasons: Sex and exorcisms. So, which was it with you?” This is also as far as things tend to go in a sexual direction: vague mentions and detached anecdotes. This is not contrived device born of a desire to “subvert the cultural norm.” Rather it is a natural outcome of the situation, Laura being engaged to a man whose job keeps him exhausted and mostly absent, and Tyler describing sharing one’s life with someone else as being “like marmite. It’s fucking shit.”
Even when things go from bad to worse, which they do frequently and seemingly randomly, Laura maintains a startling level of clarity, “a lamp was on and a CD was playing. The Faint. Hilarious. Funny what you manage to appreciate when … She was on her back in the middle of the rug and there was sick all over her and all over.”
While not one to shy away from drugs, alcohol, and debauchery, Animals is more than hangover anecdotes and cursing, as Laura generally comes across as intelligent, observant, and funny despite her less-than-auspicious life circumstances of being overeducated and underemployed, living essentially rent-free with an obscenely rich, dangerously random Nebraskan cattle heiress. Isn’t that always just the way?