IN RECOVERY: Guy Mankowski’s ‘How I Left The National Grid’
Guy Mankowski How I Left The National Grid (Roundfire, 2015)
by Laura Waddell
Describing itself as “a post-punk novel”, Guy Mankowski’s How I Left The National Grid is written from the alternating perspective of Robert Wardner, a recovering rockstar recalling the peak of his manic fame in the grimy early 80s, and an investigative journalist named Sam, tracked down by a publisher (in a moment any struggling writer might consider a pipe dream) to capitalise upon the rock star’s rumoured re-emergence by writing a book telling the story of his disappearance in-between.
The fans, and the journalist, are as keen to build legend around Wardner as he himself once was. The musical output, characterised by an urge to escape everyday monotony of the 9-5 commute, is enhanced by frenzied stage performances aimed at both transforming and transcending such a life, wanting to “bury that damned hook in the mind of every terrified kid dreading school the next day, every housewife longing for the visions of the future sent to her in adverts through the letter-box daily.”
As the rockstars rock on, lost in an intense approximation of what a rock star should be, full of unsustainable and repetitive destruction, spittle, and careening energy – and more interested in status and staging than the music itself – it becomes difficult to identify individual achievement or passion. Rather, their ability to unplug from the cliched downtrodden life they sing about and plug into another stock form, that of band on stage with screaming fans, seems enough. It’s enough for the fans, mostly, who glamourise their own lives by association. Appearing in a clump overnight, the identikit fans are identified through Topshop T-shirts and possessive forum postings, even copying the haircut of the band’s manager deemed newly iconic. This shallow cult of loyalty to a hollow totem is a trade off. Wardner’s concept of himself as rock star requires fans at the altar of the stage. Sam’s the guy who writes about the band.
When Wardner goes missing, elaborate rumours of his time off the grid prop up the fans who satiate their appetite online with whisperings of murder and sightings in mainland Europe. These forum members are hostile to journalist Sam as he begins his investigations, happier to believe in the mysterious charisma of a murderer-rockstar than whatever truth may be uncovered. It’ll warn him off, they rage – but perhaps the potential of a mundane reality is the most threatening factor. Wardner’s missing time spent with old pen-pal Nataly, quiet, restorative and more gently introspective than his posturing recollections of one-note intensity onstage, provide some of the most nuanced and sensitive writing within the novel.
Mankowski, it seems easy to speculate, has surely had a pen-pal at some point himself. “We started trading internal furniture,” says Wardner, succinctly portraying the nature of exchanging handwritten revelations. It’s a relationship that grows bit by bit – intimate, but not romantic, paced by the pre-internet timetable of mail delivery. Two months into their correspondence, Nataly sends a photograph.
It was a clipping of her onstage at her first gig, taken from the local newspaper. Dark, slanted fringe covering most of her face as she focused on her guitar.
Wardner keeps her telephone number, written on paper, in a shoebox under his bed. These small tokens are era-signifying in a way which contrasts with the bombastic noise and stylistic choices copied by the fans. It is attractive nostalgia for a time of anticipation and patience; of small paper treasures, chance encounters, and private, personal missives from bedroom to bedroom, but importantly, it is also central to the nature of the relationship between the two. When Wardner is later to disappear from public eye to the sanctuary of Nataly’s home, it is a move which follows on from his earlier letters. Following their path, he places himself in a situation where he can explore himself through quiet and private communication with her, a process Mankowski cleverly develops from post to physical presence. Wardner’s memories of this time with Nataly reveal a series of impressions.
There’s this one picture of Nataly that I took that afternoon that I still take everywhere I go. […] The Nataly depicted in it was never fully realized. She never completely embodied that mellow, satisfied Nataly, whose face portrayed thoughts about the future. When I look at that picture I think how I would do anything to will that Nataly into existence.
Ultimately, although mutually nurtured, the personal impressions Nataly and Wardner trade do not meld together into one all self encompassing whole, and Wardner moves on to facilitate his inner reflection, alone.
Mankowski’s novel is about the pitfalls of externally defined identity; the inability to find meaning and purpose on an individual or societal level results in an attachment to mere symbols of existence. One ill-fitting mode of living is replaced by another, successfully portrayed as shallow and unsatisfying, just tipping over the edge of not quite right or real enough. As this is the case for most characters in the novel the theme is spread widely, but slightly thinly, with variance in how well fleshed they are. Windows are smashed to a reaction of lacklustre concern, which rather nullifies the threat depicted in the action. A tense scene where the hitherto barely-sketched band members sabotage each other’s performance onstage is delightful in its curious spite and jeopardy, but lacks context. Concern over Sam’s past poor mental health is mentioned once, but never returns. Beyond reliance on others for concepts of self identity, there’s a recurring sense of fate, or lack of personal control. It’s a precarious position. For the musicians, even when they hit the right notes on stage, the characters are ‘bewildered, flailing’ amidst it all, with no solid footing. Wardner’s organic, if selfish, choice to check out from these options altogether – how he left the national grid – is the closest he comes to contentment and self knowledge.