David Peace Red or Read (Faber and Faber, 2013)
by Joe Kennedy
A phrase echoed banefully through David Peace’s Red Riding tetralogy. “The North, where we do what we want!” condensed a negation of secular humanism into a specific geography, denoting as it did so an almost equivalently plausible system of belief: the English North – specifically metropolitan West Yorkshire – became a Sadean desolation emblematising a pole-flipped ethics. Yet calling the slogan an ‘echo’ denies its oddly anechoic influence, which is to say that, in its recurrence, it absorbed and muted indicators of temporality, transfixing historical time in place. The titling of the sequence’s constituent parts – Nineteen Seventy-Four, Nineteen Seventy-Seven, Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty-Three – may seem to pay due respect to chronology but, in reality, and like the exaggerated presence of timepieces in the narratives, comes only to signify unchangingness. The North is The North is The North, and it always will be.
After completing Red Riding, Peace persevered with place and produced two novels which reaffirmed the idea of an immutably wicked Yorkshire, a chronotope parched of chronos. GB84 slipped the generic constraints of the political thriller in order to produce a scouring, borderline-metaphysical enquiry into human corruption. Its moral pessimism was reprised in The Damned United, which seemed at first glance a lighter work, probably because its ostensible theme was football rather than crime or politics. Indeed, Tom Hooper’s film adaptation treated it as a nostalgic, knockabout biopic, eking from an expressionistic treatment of Brian Clough’s forty-four days in charge of Leeds United opportunities for a buddy comedy devoted to fussy period verisimilitude. Really, though, The Damned United perpetuated the sense generated by its precursors that Peace is an author whose abiding interest lies not in time, but in space, marking him as a connoisseur of the inevitably and inexorably cursed location.
Most authors don’t write one novel about – or ‘about’, as we’ll see – football management, let alone two. Peace, however, revisits the theme in Red or Dead, his latest, which recounts the story of Bill Shankly’s long, long custodianship of Liverpool FC. It’s been suggested that a second exploration of the subject allows Peace to finally articulate some faith in goodness – he announced recently that he wanted “something different, an inspiring story rather than another narrative of defeat” – but, regardless of the accuracy of this reading and its partial authorial validation, the real departure it enacts lies in its decision to concentrate on temporality. Indeed, Red or Dead might most interestingly be encountered not as a novel pure and simple, but as a piece of durational art. Most reviewers have chosen to discuss the question of historical and sporting accuracy in relation to Peace’s depiction of Shankly, but this is to miss the point somewhat. The Scot’s extensive tenure seems to have been selected for its analogical potential, for its capacity to tell us something about the nature of time and, particularly, how time exists in a dialectical relationship with work under capitalism. Capitalist work gives time a perceptibility which differs from diurnal and seasonal rhythms, while time serves to make work manifest and, indeed, as a measure of the very value of work.
Why football, then? Here one might speculate, profitably, on a strange historical coincidence. The rules of Association Football were first ‘properly’ codified in 1863, an event which set in process what Steven Connor calls the “growing standardization of temporalities” in sport. Connor argues convincingly that, since the nineteenth century, sport – and football is probably the signal example here – has “been not just constrained by the time-disciplines of capitalist production, but also made a productive part of the economy.” It is this constraint and standardisation which gives football a temporality echoing that of certain aspects of modernist literature. The enclosure of the sport within the constructs of individual, clearly delineated seasons and competitions, took it away from its festive, participatory and spontaneous roots, but also lent to it an immanent melancholy. Where once the game might have been played in the name of abstract notions like honour and sportsmanship, standardisation’s insistence on giving competition concrete, and economically productive, form, meant that success became contingent. Any football fan knows that the glow of a cup win or promotion lasts for the briefest glimmer of time; it is felt only briefly before anxiety about the next season – in which the prolongation of success is by no means an inevitability – makes itself known. There’s something Baudelairean about this, an idea reinforced when one notes that the Parisian poète maudit published “The Painter of Modern Life,” his manifesto for an aesthetics of fleetingness proper to the exigencies of capitalist modernity, in 1863, the same year as the English Football Association agreed on a standardised rule-set. Of the tense, temporally compact encounters which shape the lyric moments of Baudelaire’s poetry, Walter Benjamin wrote that they were situations of “love – not at first sight, but at last sight” in which the moment is always slithering away. It is not entirely facetious to suggest that football, at least in its reified, competitive sense, is characterised by precisely this slipperiness.
At least one experimental novelist has employed football as a structural metaphor for the idea that, in the urban, industrialised world time is not present to itself, and that our so-called experience never happens in its own moment. B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, published in 1969, tells the story of a sports reporter and sometime academic who travels to Nottingham in order to report on a match. Arriving in the city, he realises that it was once the home of a dear friend who died prematurely of cancer. The novel is composed of twenty-seven chapbooks which can be read in any order, the formal coup de main denoting the way in which the past and future contaminate the present; it is, in some ways, an extreme extrapolation of a temporal aesthetic first proposed by Baudelaire and later developed by Proust. The cluttered, seemingly meaningless, drudgeful present is incurred upon without warning by a past whose significance was not grasped fully at the time; the event is grasped only as its absence.
Peace acknowledged a debt to Johnson in writing The Damned United, but his agenda these days is different. In Red or Dead, he attempts to find ways of making time tactile, of hardening it so it can be addressed critically as though it were a material thing: the only way to understand reified time is, tautologically, to reify it. Baudelaire, Benjamin and Johnson all had to find ways of giving poetic shape to time’s fleetingness; Peace, by contrast, appears to be more interested in giving a phenomenological account of capitalist time’s weight:
In their hotel in Turin, in the dining room. The waiters cleared away their plates, the waiters cleared away their glasses. The waiters leaned against the bar, the waiters looked at their watches. And then the waiters looked at Bill, Bob, Joe and Reuben. Their plates clean, their glasses empty. Bill laughed.
Even severed from the context of the novel as a whole, this is self-consciously drab prose. Taken as a representative fragment of an extremely long work, however, one can understand that this is a fiction which moves not only slowly, but lumberingly across more than seven hundred pages. Where the characters in Peace’s earlier novels checked their watches in ironic acknowledgement that time – their time, all time – would expire before evil and venality did, the gesture seems to be used here to denote the desire for such an expiration. The repetitive nature of the language, not local to the passage quoted above but a defining characteristic of the work in toto, produces a sense of sludginess, of a gloopy time which resists efforts to gee it along. We can see this in a more accentuated sense in vignettes which Peace devotes to recording series of actions in detail which is perversely, even idiotically minute:
In the drive, in the car. In the night. Bill turned off the engine. In the night. Bill got out of the car. In the night. Bill walked up the drive. In the night. Bill unlocked the front door of the house. In the night. Bill opened the door. In the night. Bill stepped into the house. In the dark. Bill closed the door. In the dark. Bill put down his case in the hallway. In the dark. Bill walked down the hallway to the kitchen. In the dark. Bill sat down at the table. In the dark. Bill put his hand in his pocket. In the dark. Bill took out the chip. The red and white chip. In the dark. Bill stared down at the chip. The red and white chip. In the dark. Bill turned the chip in his fingers. The red and white chip. In the dark.
In a literary-historical sense, what is the genealogy of prose like this? Peace, one recalls, is frequently compared to James Ellroy, on fairly superficial grounds, and to British postwar realists whose work he has professed (a slightly ambivalent) enthusiasm for. This, though, is clearly not a descendent of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, nor of White Jazz. Robbe-Grillet’s chosisme, perhaps? The attritive churn of Beckett’s Watt? It’s hard to say with confidence: although both these possibilities seem to be implicated here, there’s a social and historical candidness which one would not associate with Beckett and a (somewhat gruff) sonorousness from which Robbe-Grillet would have shied. In any case, this is a writing style which must have been selected and then honed for a particular purpose in the full knowledge that it is, to use the word in its least pejorative sense, ‘boring’.
There is perhaps a temptation to think that Peace’s stylistic decisions in Red or Dead have been made according to a rationale which seeks a writing practice unique to the demands of producing a formally realistic account of what it must be like to take a failing football club – which is what Liverpool were when Shankly arrived on Merseyside in 1959 – and then, with almost infinite resources of patience and perseverance, make them consistently great. It is unlikely that such an account is completely inaccurate, but it is equally likely that to portray the technique here as pure intradiegetic realism is to put the critical stress in the wrong place. The sheer scale of the narrative lets slip that more is at stake here than verisimilitude: Peace’s prose, once known for its paratactic breathlessness, now bears all the hallmarks of being crafted to frustrate, to subject the reader to something like an ordeal.
The point may be that sainthood, secular or otherwise, is itself a matter of ordeal, but one is also reminded by the novel of the strange type of commitment that begins to manifest itself in the viewer of minimalistic video installations or the listener of repetitive sound-art. Confronted with this kind of work, one becomes attuned to a flattened uneventfulness, or extensiveness, which draws attention to, and then begins to amplify, the perception of time as distinct from its representation by memory and anticipation. Writing on what she rather brilliantly calls ‘stuplimity’, theorist Sianne Ngai notes how “the boring prompt(s) us to look for new strategies of affective engagement and to extend the circumstances under which engagement becomes possible.” This is surely an accurate description of what is taking place in, and what is provoked by, Red or Dead, which makes of work time – for Shankly is always, always working – a kind of stupid sublimity.
The subject matter of the novel, then, possesses a strange doubleness. On one hand, it is attended to and realised by the style: the pointed laboriousness of the writing makes clear that a successful project such as Shankly’s rejuvenation of Liverpool can never be anything but hard-won. On the other, however, it is what allows the style itself to be realised as something autonomous from the conditions of mimesis. This apparent paradox is useful not only for situating the novel in relation to other contemporary aesthetic practices, but helps us position Peace as much more than just a realist who – like, say, James Kelman or Irvine Welsh – regards a certain level of textual experimentation as an acceptable refitting of the mode to suit modern social existence. The nature of the enquiry here goes far beyond describing such particularities and instead looks to instantiate an affective experience which gets the measure, in a formal sense, of late capitalism’s “stuplime,” repetitive, grinding temporality.
It is because of this that Peace merits inclusion in a more wide-ranging discussion about the novel as it continues to navigate the aftershocks of modernism. Modernist studies has, of late, and particularly in relation to English and British literature, started to emphasise content at the expense of form – Virginia Woolf, for example, has become an object of critical interest as much for her detailing of middle-class life as for her dedicated technical radicalism – and many novelists working in the wake of high modernism are treated as though they were simply reopening the gate to material realities. There is, however, a line of authors – Henry Green, Johnson, arguably John Berger – whose focus lay in how particular types of content could be manipulated to potentialise a continuation of formal investigation, a tradition which worked both in parallel with and subsequently to the late modernist impulse, best represented by Beckett, to chance an accentuated elimination of the historical and geographical real. Peace, I think, is concerned not only by what his novel can do for the theme, but what his theme can do for the novel as a form: there is an ambitiousness to Red or Dead which has so far gone unremarked upon, most likely because reviewers have been mystified by the unrelenting austerity of its prose.
To speak of realist concerns such as characterisation in this instance seems, then, to retread a comparatively limited reading. The depictions of historical individuals are not without interest value by any means, and there are instances in which a more sociologically-inclined Peace captures the shifts in the cultural temperature of working-class Merseyside in the era of The Beatles with acuity and tact. It feels, though, that these aspects are those which will be concentrated on in an analysis of the novel’s likeness to reality which needs to be rejected in an almost polemical manner to observe how it is precisely in the apparent concession to verisimilitude, the seeming concession to the triumph of the material, that the writing gets purchase as it moves to transcend the terms of narrow mimesis.