FEW things are likely to leave me feeling less festive than a festival. Which is unfortunate: I live in Edinburgh, home of the world’s largest annual arts festival. Each year, the same, but worse. Ticket prices that could bring tears to a sultan’s eyes; egos observable from outer space; unpromising one-man shows, the one man referring here to the audience, not the cast; each journey taxed a full thirty minutes extra walking time because the pavements are costive with tourists and juggling unicyclists; the noise, the noise.
Literary festivals practise their own brand of awfulness. Wilde’s prison pensée comes to mind: ‘Each man kills the thing he loves.’ It’s an odd way of demonstrating one’s appreciation of authors, making these solitary creatures who are not natural performers sweat their way through a reading that only reaffirms their choice of page over stage. Not to mention burbling chairs; shoot-me-now audience questions; criminally overpriced comestibles; and the omni-branding of corporate sponsors who wrecked the economy, ushering in an era of budgetary austerity which, amongst other things, has devastated public libraries.
A decade or so ago, you could still save your sanity by fleeing the city, but they’re everywhere now, festivals. There’s nary a nook without a bespoke festival of its own, from the highlands to the islands. And it is on such a festival-troubled island that Kevin MacNeil’s latest, The Brilliant & Forever, his third novel in just over a decade, takes place.
MacNeil’s first novel, The Stornoway Way, was set on an island, and MacNeil himself was born and raised on Lewis. In both his debut and his latest, the author dramatises his love-hate relationship with island life: ‘A small island is a sad, safe, familiar, nurturing place. I grew up wanting to murder everyone with loving-kindness.’ The island on which The Brilliant & Forever is set is unnamed, and isn’t necessarily Scottish even, though there are references to a language natives speak that could be Gaelic: ‘Our indigenous language has a singsong cadence that is often likened to the rise and fall of the sea. Its vowels are either long or v-e-r-y l-o-n-g.’
The narrator, unnamed like the language, says when spoken it ‘makes some sick or angry’, a satirical take on the mainstream’s attitude to Gaelic. We are, you see, in an alternate reality; you can tell we’re in an alternate reality, not merely because of a certain vagueness of time and place, but also the metaphors are positively glaring. The narrator’s best friend, Archie, is himself a metaphor. More accurately, he’s an alpaca, a talking alpaca. No one thinks it extraordinary alpacas can talk. To the contrary, alpacas are largely despised and a stand-in for every misunderstood minority.
The island hosts an annual event called The Beautiful & Forever, a one-day festival where natives and incomers tell stories. A panel of judges drawn from the trendier end of the literary world choose a winner who is awarded instant fame and a fairytale book deal. The reader is asked to believe this festival is hugely popular and important, attracting an audience of 20,000 and requiring the sort of stage rig more usually seen at a U2 concert; talking alpacas are more credible.
The narrator, Archie and their friend Macy all decide to tell a story at the festival. In all, thirteen would-be writers take part on the day, with the central part of The Brilliant & Forever a collection of short stories that owes a debt to Italo Calvino (there’s a character called Calvin O Blythe). Participants include Stella, a Katie Price-esque glamour model included so we can tut-tut over celebrity culture, and an American whose ‘autobiography of a serial killer’ signals MacNeil’s disapproval of crime fiction.
Archie wants to win because ‘it could mean the start of a new way of humans treating alpacas with better dignity and equality’. The narrator, a bit of a Buddhist bore, isn’t interested in glittering prizes. ‘So many writers seem to want fame, money, adulation. But I’ve learned that craving these things results in jealousy, desperation, egotism and the partial removal of the gift that is the present moment.’ One might also say that such qualities can result in rather fine literature. What motivated Shakespeare, Dr Johnson, Dickens or Hemingway?
In addition to the grand prize, the audience vote after the last story has been performed for ‘The People’s Choice’. Before the novel’s climax, what The People’s Choice might be is vaguely described, leading one to think it’s a consolation prize. It’s nothing of the sort. Spoilerphobes, look away. Whoever wins The People’s Choice is in fact torn to pieces by the crowd.
The bloody denouement points towards one of the novel’s two chief flaws. Firstly, it just doesn’t hang together. Why does no one mention the terrible risk contestants face before we witness The People’s Choice taking place? MacNeil presents the revelation as a coup de théâtre, but his move sacrifices credibility. Think about it. Would anyone, even a talking alpaca, enter a competition where there’s a 13 to 1 chance of being horribly and publicly murdered?
The further a story departs from a recognisable world, the more psychologically realistic it has to be. Take Kafka, who is namechecked in The Brilliant & Forever. Metamorphosis draws its power not from the imaginative feat of Gregor Samsa’s transformation into a giant insect, but his description of the Samsa family’s reaction. Their anger, disgust and shame are brilliantly observed and strike us as being just what those people would feel.
The other flaw is a certain linguistic exuberance on MacNeil’s part that often gets away from him. His similes and metaphors sound sort of okay but often don’t stand up to more than a moment’s contemplation. The judging panel are described as ‘having the scruples of a Trojan cavalry’, a tortuous way of referencing the Trojan horse. Which you don’t have to be a student of the classics to know was built by the Greeks. Surely it’s the Greeks’ scruples that are in question, not those of the Trojan cavalry, of whom history and Homer have little to say, much less the condition of their honesty.
Equally, what are we to make of MacNeil’s (repeated) description of a severe headache as a ‘mind-graine’? It’s barely a pun, not even a play on words, really. To get it, you have to know what a migraine is, but if you know that, then you know it takes place in the mind anyway. It’s like describing an ‘earache’ as a ‘hearache’: pointless. To take a counter example, re-read the passage that follows Humbert Humbert’s seduction of his stepdaughter in Nabokov’s Lolita. Humbert worries that while the act took place behind closed doors he might still fall foul of an ‘earwitness’. It’s a play on ‘eyewitness’, a witty reminder of Humbert’s paranoia that doesn’t merely repeat what the original word does already anyway. Really, an editor should have questioned ‘mind-graine’ and other quasi-puns, although I fear something of the editorial care taken over this novel is revealed by this sentence: ‘It was six in the afternoon, a fragrant summer’s evening….’ Well, what is it? Afternoon? Evening?
MacNeil is a talented poet whose solitary slim collection Love and Zen in the Outer Hebrides is worth seeking out. The more lyrical passages in The Brilliant & Forever make one regret his decision to abandon poetry for prose. One applauds his ambition, and nods vigorously at his reservations about the state of contemporary publishing, but The Brilliant & Forever – like another Scottish novel that features sentient animals, Andrew O’Hagan’s Maf the Dog – falls apart beneath the weight of contrivance required to keep its plot afloat.
The Brilliant & Forever
Polygon, £9.99, ISBN 978-1-84697-337-6, PP245