A Great Big Shining Star by Niall Griffiths (Vintage - February, 2013)
In Orwell’s novel Coming Up For Air – the protagonist, George Bowling, fat and middle-aged and depressed to find the world he knows being concreted over—finds a sudden reconnection with the natural world:
Why don’t people, instead of the idiocies they do spend their time on, just walk around looking at things? That pool for instance—all the stuff that’s in it. Newts, water-snails, water-beetles, caddis-flies, leeches and God knows how many other things you can only see with a microscope. The mystery of their lives, down there under water. You could spend a lifetime watching them, ten lifetimes, and still you wouldn’t have got to the end of even that one pool. And all the while the sort of feeling of wonder, the peculiar flame inside you. It’s the one thing worth having, and we don’t want it.
In spite of being pessimistic in overtone, the optimism in the novel comes from the protagonists’ awakening to the natural world. Orwell seems to be saying that the ordinary man will be OK against the forces of capitalism, as long as he remembers to pay attention to what matters.
That paragraph could easily serve as an epigraph for Niall Griffiths’ new novel, A Great Big Shining Star, which is essentially a plea and a howl and an exhortation to the reader to Pay Attention to What Really Matters ie. the natural world. The plot such as it is, sets the mostly unnamed Caretaker on a collision course with Grace (Gracie) Allcock a child that once attended his school before she became famous for taking part in an exploitative ‘roasting’ sex tape made by some Premiership Footballers. As we follow Grace’s ‘progress’ through the murky world of sex tapes and Z-list celebrity, the narrative is interspersed with the voice of the Caretaker who knows it’s all going to hell in a handcart and has a vision of how it has all gone so badly wrong: ‘A fifth horseman, see him riding, eyes on long wavering stalks like a lobster and bearing a copy of Heat in a hand mottled by bulimia’. Except now, along with his searing insights the Caretaker is also lost, depressed and alcoholic and crouched over his computer addicted to the pornographic cyberspace.
It’s hard to think of any other contemporary writer who tells it how it is with such a force of poetry and personality. The world is laid out with a bravura naturalism sometimes eye-wateringly so—this is a book for readers who are strong of stomach, some of the viscera of the processes of plastic surgery made me squirm—but this is humanity in all its sweating, swearing, bleeding, smelly, frailty. He takes on the whole murky world of celebrity culture and pits it against the failing natural world with a religious intensity. The message, that we obscure and demean real beauty and wonder, by our obsession with surface, with pornography and reality television and tabloid magazines, with seeing and not looking. Or as (Professor, Sir) Cornell West would have it in his jazz-philosophy: ‘clever gimmicks of mass distraction yield a cheap soulcraft of addicted and self-medicated narcissists.’
Griffiths’ is Liverpool Welsh—and has the lyrical gift of a Celtic poet—but the tag of ‘The Welsh Irvine Welsh’ is something of a misnomer—he has none of the puerile scatology that sometimes pervades Welsh’s work. This is sincere, visionary writing, come from the traditions of Blake and Lawrence as well as the American counterculture heroes like Denis Johnson and Charles Bukowski. There are lines of startling clarity throughout—lesser, more ‘writerly’ writers might draw attention to the phrasing, or being pleased with themselves, edit the whole thing down to its most showy lines, but here it is all part of the rampant invective, a lilting, off-kilter, passionate kind of street preaching. I have been quoting this paragraph to anyone who’ll listen all week from a moment where Grace walks through a graveyard with her boyfriend Damien:
And the lichen on these standing stones around her looks to Grace like scabs, ulceration. Cankers, growths, like something on the ‘disease’ page of nowthatsfuckedup.com, that site Damien so loves. And the carved names, weathered as they are, sanded and almost erased some of them. These people, these dissolving bones, they’ve left nothing behind but a carved name and even that is disappearing. Nothing on the planet to say that they lived, that they were here, that they moved across it with their own peculiar gait. Unremembered and uncelebrated, just gone. GERALD LEWIS, b.1945, d.2007, what did you do while you were here? Who did you love, if anyone, and who loved you, if anyone? Unremarked now, fertiliser man, did you honour the miracle of your life? And even if you did, what matters that when now a raindrop ploughs down across your chipped and fading name?
Yes, there are some problems – mainly that Grace’s character doesn’t quite have enough subjectivity, perhaps necessarily so, as she stands as a cypher for the kinds of self-betrayal that women engage in when they seek celebrity through their bra size. And occasionally the tone lapses and could have done with some editing. But who else currently in the world of British letters is writing with this kind of angry intensity? We are awash in a sea of saggy historical novels, or the ‘cheap soulcraft’ of literary pieces where the writer is far too aware of his importance as ‘writer’, resulting instead in a kind of detached irony which smothers all possible avenues to poetry and passion. This is a raw, gutsy, deeply moral novel and a cri de coeur for British writing to return to its romantic, lyrical roots and tackle subjects that actually matter. If there is any literary counterculture still left in this fast-failing country, Niall Griffiths is right at the front of it.