The Anthropocene Unconscious of “Shuggie Bain”
By Mark BouldJanuary 8, 2022
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
When you write, you select. This word, not that word. An emphasis here, not there. This particular sentence.
When you write, you reject all those alternatives in favor of this one.
So the text is trailed by all the things that were not said, including all the things that must not or cannot be said. A circumambient swarm. An eloquent jive of demurral and equivocation, circumvention and slippage, omission and repression.
At the same time, the text must contain, in Pierre Macherey’s words, all the things it “is compelled to say in order to say what it wants to say.” Superfluities that are nonetheless essential. What J. G. Ballard called the “he saids, she saids and opening and closing of doors.” The color of the curtains. The shape of a face. The places people come from and pass through and go to. Converging plot lines. Happy endings.
Like a gravity well, the “compelled to say” distorts the trajectory of the “wanted to say.”
Together, these two kinds of excess form the textual unconscious.
But how do you unlock it? How do you encourage a text to say what it cannot or does not want to say? To enunciate those parts of itself of which it is unaware?
Fredric Jameson says we must rewrite the “text in terms of a particular master code.” For example, queer theorists taught us to see what happens if we don’t assume everyone in a text is straight. Swapping out the master code of compulsory heteronormativity enables the silent currents of desire flowing through the text to speak aloud. And before you know it, Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” is a song about a straight lounge singer oblivious to the fact he works in a gay bar …
In The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture, I argue that the culture of our time is roiling with anxieties about climate change. Not just in “cli-fi,” but everywhere. And all we need to do is look at texts in ways they might not want or intend. To stop assuming they are not about climate change. To change the master code.
Douglas Stuart’s autobiographical-but-not-autobiographical Shuggie Bain (2020) won the Booker Prize and was long-listed and short-listed for various others, including the National Book Award. It was featured on many broadsheet “best of the year” lists, with the American Library Association selecting it as a notable book. Such admiration attests to the novel’s affective impact on many readers.
But it didn’t really work for me, so the middlebrow-ness of these accolades only confirm me in my ambivalence.
Yes, Stuart’s prose flows very smoothly, reminding me at times of one of Liverpudlian Ramsey Campbell’s ’80s horror novels, minus the supernatural monsters, startling imagery, and, too often, the subtlety. (The sequence in which Shuggie’s sister Catherine is threatened with gang rape by knife-wielding younger teens is so crude not even ’70s James Herbert would have stooped to it.)
And yes, although Stuart is five years out when he calls an Altered Images single “a new top-forty record,” and almost certainly has Doctor Who broadcast on the wrong night in the mid-’80s, he does sometimes get the telling detail spot on. Nothing moved me more than Shuggie returning home from school to find his alcoholic mother, Agnes, sober for once and heating up an apple turnover in the oven to go with his cup of tea. There is something so very right about that choice of treat. It rings true. An apple turnover looks like it’s from a local baker, not a packet: it has an artisanal aura. It embodies and thus betrays what Agnes imagines — inaccurately — middle-class life must be like. But it would have come from the either the nearby petrol station or the run-down Dolan’s, the only shop within two miles, and therefore would have been factory made. And although apple turnovers are a pretty mediocre kind of pastry — this is Britain in the ’80s, so even if you like them, it would not have been a good one — it seems fancy. An out of the ordinary choice that is not too unfamiliar, not remotely exotic. A heart-breaking expression of Agnes’s class aspirations. An index of the cultural capital she does not possess. A token of social and economic segregation. But nonetheless something special: a gift, an apology. That complex specificity, whether intuitive or observed, remembered or merely stumbled upon, surprised me in a way little else in the book did. It took me back to my own childhood, to the once-every-other-year visit to my great auntie Con who would serve tinned salmon with cress on white finger rolls and slices of Battenberg for our astonishingly swanky tea. It was like finding yourself in Narnia eating Turkish Delight.
But mostly Shuggie Bain is the “Readers’ Wives” version of a heritage novel. A poverty porn parade of violent grotesques. Like Martin McDonagh doing Billy Elliot.
And it doesn’t have the faintest idea it is in any way about climate change. In fact, it commits what Amitav Ghosh describes as the foundational error and defining characteristic of the “serious literary novel” — the original sin that prevents it from consciously engaging with climate change.
In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Ghosh argues that as the mundane novel developed from the 18th century onward, it distinguished itself from the epic and the romance by instead fantasizing the regularity of bourgeois life. By promoting the rational, the plausible, the orderly, and the statistically normative while pretending — or not even noticing — that such supposedly neutral, universal values were self-valorizing ideological constructs. Serious literary fiction accumulated quotidian detail to discipline and regulate boisterous reality. It became intensive rather than extensive, focusing on individual psychology within a specific finite social and physical setting. It banished nonhuman agency and minimized connections to the larger world. And thus it robbed itself of the capacity to address things outside — or larger than — its parochial purview.
This is what makes Shuggie Bain so intriguing. It is remorselessly prosaic and constantly evasive. It is surrounded by and full of things it cannot or will not say, and those silences are repeatedly betrayed by the things it must say in order to say what it wants to say. And the novel becomes most interesting at those precise moments when it turns away from the world beyond its milieu and turns in on itself.
On the one hand, these refusals help to produce the sense that the novel is a kind of slum tourism. Many of the defenses made against such critical judgments revolve around the way the novel made the reader feel — shock, horror, fascination, directionless sympathy, the warmth of one’s own capacity for compassion — as if this were somehow not precisely what a poverty safari is supposed to do.
On the other hand, those moments of disconnection, when Shuggie Bain shies away from thinking about the contexts of the story it tells, are entry points into the novel’s Anthropocene unconscious.
Constantly lurking just out of view are the interrelated histories of two of the largest drivers of climate change — the British Empire and the development of the world market, both of which depended on fossil fuels, ironworks, and shipbuilding. Three industries with centers in and around Glasgow. Three industries already dying or being deliberately killed off by the state in the period in which the novel is set.
Of these industries, coal mining forms the most significant part of Shuggie’s childhood environment. Just before abandoning his family, Shuggie Sr. relocates Agnes, Shuggie, Catherine, and Leek to an isolated housing development, built as part of the city’s slum clearance strategy and to provide housing for workers at a nearby colliery. But the pit is already closed, the men unemployed, and the families reduced to living on dole, disability, and family allowance. There are no community facilities other than the Miners Club, and buses into the city are rare. These people have been left to rot, out of sight, amid polluted hills, breathing ambient coal dust blown off the slag heaps. The only job left is filling in holes so that no one falls into the derelict works. (Too many lives have already been lost: just a few years earlier, the gassy seam collapsed, and the miners who weren’t crushed to death were killed in the methane explosion.)
This “wasteland that separated the miners from the world” is the kind of dangerous playground where, when I was growing up, working-class kids routinely mucked about unsupervised, despite the Central Office of Information’s constant barrage of grimly terrifying public information films about the perils of such locations.
Once the scene is set, though, Stuart more or less ignores it, focusing instead on life inside Shuggie’s home, as his siblings depart and he is left to look after his mum. It’s as if Emily Brontë were to close the curtains on the moors that surround Wuthering Heights, or if China Miéville were to keep Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin from roaming the streets of New Crobuzon. It is almost as if Stuart is compelled to depict this landscape in order to say what he wants to say. But once it is established, its heft and presence thin. It becomes a painted backdrop, with little connection to the lives it shapes. And every waning glimpse is a wraith-like reminder that it never really had any connection to the world beyond it.
Sure, there is a generalized token invocation of Thatcher, both as an individual and as a metonym for the dismal anti-worker future of “technology and nuclear power and private health” she was intent on constructing. And while it is of course impossible to disagree with any Fuck the Tories graffiti, the appearance of these words, painted on a “plywood barrier” at the pit entrance, is probably premature since the pit seems to have been closed a little too long. (Threats of a national mineworkers strike in early 1981 stalled the Conservative’s class warmongering closure of British pits in favor of shipping cheaper and often dirtier coal into the United Kingdom, but only for a couple more years.)
The globalizing market so central to the neoliberal agenda of and since Thatcher has its roots deep in Britain’s imperial past, and although British imperialism is never directly mentioned, traces of it run through Shuggie Bain. Protestant/Catholic tensions and accommodations are inscribed in the texture of daily lives: some characters care about religious differences, others do not; those who do often act from habit, lacking real conviction; those who do not sometimes speak or act as if they do. Sectarianism is not reduced to violence around inflammatory Orange marches and Rangers/Celtic games (although they are in the mix) but presented as a fact of life in that part of Scotland. Which means that again there is no historicization. No sense of how a longer historical conflict was articulated through British imperialism in Ireland, or how the British imperial project — and emerging capitalist industries — used cheap Irish labor, both Catholic and Protestant, in particular industries.
In a similar vein, Shuggie’s sister Catherine moves to South Africa, where her new husband, a former Clydeside shipworker, will help run a Transvaal palladium mine. No one questions the ease with which a Briton could make such a move — the nearest is when Shuggie wonders “what black people were like, and why they needed Donald Jnr to make them work better.” And although Catherine disapproves of their estranged father proudly saying, “Youse gonnae be a Kaffir master!,” there is no acknowledgment of Apartheid, despite the (correctly) despised Thatcher being a staunch and vocal supporter of white supremacist regimes in southern Africa.
And so Shuggie Bain is not a novel about climate change.
But this tale of feral folk, whose immiseration, alcoholism, and aggression are apparently nobody’s fault but their own, cannot quite escape the carbon-burning history that surrounds it. That is, it cannot help also being a novel about climate change. No matter how much Stuart sets aside, ignores, is unaware of, or suppresses that history — however much he selects these particular words and sentences, patterns and themes, and rejects those others — the novel still bears its traces.
It runs like a seam through the novel.
To see it, change the master code.
Mark Bould’s latest book is The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture (Verso, 2021).
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