Hell Is the British Museum: On S. J. Fowler’s “Mueum”

By Guy StevensonJanuary 27, 2023

Hell Is the British Museum: On S. J. Fowler’s “Mueum”

MUEUM by S. J. Fowler

MUEUM (S REDACTED) presents the British Museum as a hell on earth. The debut novel by a poet who doubles as a monkey-mimicking performance artist, and who spent much of his twenties working security at the museum, it imagines an end to the world in which civilization has been reduced to gawping at stunt artifacts. This is a future plunged into “deep ocean darkness” by nuclear disaster (biblically surveyed in the opening section), in which we are shown around the last remaining outpost by a narrator as confused as we are.

Fowler’s museum-guard antihero knows his job but doesn’t know who he is or quite what he’s doing here (referred to as “Mark,” he tells us repeatedly, “I must remember I am not Mark”). A veteran of the war behind the hellscape, Mark/Not Mark is now employed to keep visitors’ grubby mitts off mummies, bog bodies, and gruesome weapons (half or all of which may be fakes). With his fellow wardens — an assortment of ghoulish automatons, grimly using up time — he lives a regimented, joyless existence, moving from exhibit room to lunch hall to scheduled sex sessions with the museum prostitute. Through the narrator’s observations of surreal experience, we encounter the J. G. Ballard–like fantasies that must have kept Fowler from offing himself during his long hours staring into emptiness. Rude, invasive visitors beat each other’s brains out for a place in the queue, shifty colleagues plot to jilt Mark, and unidentified bodies throw themselves off mezzanines, lying untouched for days before expiring. Some context comes through traumatic memories of the war, but we and the narrator spend most of our time clinging to slippery bearings.

As well as Ballard, Mueum takes its inspiration from a group of 1960s Central European authors who wrote about their nations’ dark pasts in order to exorcise them. Reviled in their age as Nestbeschmutzers (“ones who dirty their own nests”), and quoted in epigraphs here, the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard and Witold Gombrowicz of Poland offer blueprints for Fowler’s future-set excavation of our own era. This is what’s next for the human animal who “know[s] everything and [is still] miserable,” whose poring over its own history produces “answer[s] to […] question[s] no one would have asked,” and who visits museums because of a tribal instinct it can only flimsily deny: “Motherland myths are part of the reason they pay […] so they can have a brief, foreign and satisfactory patriotism in a stable place.” The visitors are a metaphor for us all (“every one of them thinks they are the only one of them despite the immense evidence to the contrary”), and the displays of historical “outrages [and] unnecessary cannibalism,” without acknowledgment of real “people snapping under the pressure,” are the safe distance we keep from our own capacity for committing the crimes we abhor.

The premise of Mueum resembles George Saunders’s 2000 short story “Pastoralia,” a very funny satire on postcapitalist misery, also set after humanity has self-destructed, which features the comings and goings of a caveman reenactor in an interactive theme park. Fowler, though, is less relenting in his bleakness. Our narrator makes sardonic quips — about the idiocy of our techno-arrogance (“Everything in the past was filmed of course, it’s just no one knows how to watch the footage anymore”) or the anachronism of industrial action in the 21st century (“the union was big back when the new Museum opened”). But he has none of Saunders’s New Yorker wisecrackery. Mueum is a very English dirge: one of stubborn Pinteresque rudeness (“I see you every bastard day Matt”), “bad tea” and “body odour” (both “oddly pleasing”), and cracked, casual violence.

Like a good Brit, too, Fowler places shame and embarrassment center-stage. His museum is a place where guards as well as guests “politely chat or stare off in a respectful and ashamed manner.” Reminiscent of the violence in Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise, fights that end in nasty head wounds emerge out of “embarrassed-aggressive confrontation.” Sexual appetite is no different than hunger and boredom, staved off in the meeting of flesh that’s mottled like a Lucian Freud nude, or the greasy, machinelike intercourse of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959). Terry, an “old-timer” whose sluggish menace is recognizable to anyone who has done time in a large library, “will often grab a handful of Greg’s arse and move him around with the grip.”

One possible problem is accessibility. In the back-page blurb, Fowler’s fellow poet Luke Kennard praises Mueum as a work that will “eat up any potential response to it.” A promoter as well as a performer of avant-garde poetry, Fowler indulges gleefully in cloak-and-dagger experimentation — contorting words by removing letters, ambling between scenes we can picture and conversations that make no sense at all. The playfulness he’s after will transmit to readers who spend their lives thinking about this stuff but might frustrate those who don’t: a messing around with story and meaning, a confusion of the mind, for what? Such obscurantism threatens Fowler’s attractive manifesto for a literature that tempers “experimental” courage with “community feel.” So too does his academic’s-eye view of the staff: “coldly expressing something against someone not present,” drinking “tea, other black drinks […] anything that will require a toilet break or two from the upcoming post.”

There’s a whole history of 20th-century style in here that would take a thesis to decode: from the opening section’s Steinbeck-like panorama of apocalypse through the terseness of Beckett and Pinter to the European avant-gardists Fowler references in his epigraphs. The effect leaves the mind reaching not only for clues as to what the hell is going on but also for which great writer of experimental or apocalyptic fiction that this or that passage reminds you of, which bit of theory went into each bleak statement. Rewarding but hard to relax into, the process is broken up by moments of astonishing, often disgusting realism. Cormac McCarthy–like, the narrator remembers a soldier in the mess hall, his teeth stringy with human flesh, or his own time spent stalking unspecified victims: “[W]hen I found them, their imploring did not move me […] I was not cruel […] work is work.” All of this comes backlit by the horrible history of weaponry the museum commemorates, such as “the battle axe, the Bec de Corbin, the bludgeon and club. The flail and flanged mace. The horseman’s pick and the morning star,” among other “implements of gaining information.”

In fact, much of what is good here brings to mind McCarthy’s work: the austere narrative, reflecting thought in a comfortless world; the assertion of a plain, matter-of-fact connection between “gut” and “brain”; the close-ups of human-animal bodies — “mouth trembles with each mouthful,” “the hair on his right arm cooked like pig skin.” Spending day after day surrounded by the most comprehensive anthropological archive in existence has left Fowler with an impression of humanity every bit as stark as The Road’s (2006): “[I]t is simply inconceivable what ferocious ideas can ferment in the depths of a brain,” he writes, later describing the sum of human artistic accomplishment as “feast and famines, cycles of the seasons, farming folk with a touch of obesity nostalgia thrown in.”

A strange, absurd, difficult book by a hero of London’s poetry scene, Mueum is disconcerting and enlightening. Reading it feels like walking beside the author through a lucid nightmare — as real and unreal as our own dreams, as illogical and packed with implication, but taken to horrendous extremes. At his best, Fowler shows us what would happen if we could freeze-frame and pursue the bits of our own daily lives that make it into our sleep states: a terrifying array of the small and menial alongside the vast, ghastly, and symbolic. Without affectation, in a voice very much his own, he comes close to the uncomfortable truth-telling of Ballard, McCarthy, Céline, and the rest of the minatory canon who form the backdrop to this remarkable fiction debut.


Guy Stevenson is a lecturer in English literature at Goldsmiths and Queen Mary, University of London. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Times, The Times Literary Supplement, and the National Post.

LARB Contributor

Guy Stevenson is a lecturer in English literature at Goldsmiths and Queen Mary, University of London. He specializes in literary modernism and is the author of Anti-Humanism in the Counterculture (2020). His essays and reviews have appeared in The Times, The Times Literary Supplement, and the National Post. He is currently working on a second book, about the 1960s and its bearing on contemporary divisions over the language of race, gender, and sexuality.


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