Demo: a book review

Reviews Published August 31, 2005 in Published in the New Statesman, November 2005

We live in turbulent times. Tens of millions are rising up against neoliberalism. Here in the UK, over a million take to the streets to oppose the Iraq war and schoolchildren play truant to defy Tony Blair. Voters may be deserting the polling stations but politics, paradoxically, is alive and kicking.

So where is its literature? Why is so much contemporary fiction still so depressingly post-modern and narcissistic? Is Ian McEwan’s Saturday – radical politics as seen through the eyes of a smug, north London bore – the best we’re going to get?

I have an interest to declare here: seven years ago I wrote what I was convinced was a brilliant and mould-breaking political novel about the road protest movement. Publishers thought otherwise, and it’s still in my bottom drawer, which in retrospect saved everyone concerned a lot of embarrassment. But the question I wanted to answer now seems even more urgent: where are all the political novels?

Alison Miller’s Demo is an attempt to answer that question. In doing so it unintentionally demonstrates why there aren’t many around.

Clare is a sixteen year old teenager from Glasgow. As the novel opens she is about to leave her sturdy, working-class parents to take the bus to an anti-war, anti-globalisation demo in Florence, with her brother Danny. On the way they hook up with Danny’s friend Julian, a public-school trustafarian, and his equally posh former girlfriend, Laetitia.

The plot signposts are well-painted from the start and, sure enough, Clare’s soon in bed with posh Julian, having her virginity forcibly stolen and her political awareness raised. Meanwhile, Danny is off with Laetitia, all of them spending sweaty afternoons in hotel bedrooms when they should be out on the streets bringing down capitalism. Naturally, everything goes horribly wrong; Julian and Laetitia get back together, Clare leaves in a huff, Danny gets chippy about southern ponces and capitalism remains sturdily unabolished.

The rest of the novel follows their progress, through the eyes of the two women, as they bump into each other in various flats, cafes and anti-Bush’n’Blair demonstrations. I won’t reveal what happens at the end, both because it would be unfair to potential readers and, to be honest, because I can’t quite remember.

And this, unfortunately, is the problem: it’s hard to care. Clare is a feisty enough heroine, but she’s not interesting enough to carry the story and her Glasgae dialect is a bit wearing after a while, all shouldny and isny and hame. Julian, meanwhile, is a cardboard cut-out toff, as unconvincing as he is annoying; there mainly, it seems, to provide a foil for proley Clare and Danny – less educated, less wordly but, of course, ultimately better people.

Laetitia is not much better, and their various posh friends are even worse. Have you ever met anyone who introduced themselves as ‘Douglas … acquired the moniker amid the college cloisters’? On an anti-capitalist demonstration? All the middle-class crusties I’ve ever met affected cockney accents for fear of being exposed as bourgeois – the second-worst crime in the activist world, after reformism.

Demo is not a terrible book – it’s just not a good one. Some of Miller’s writing can be effective, particularly when she voices Clare. The problem is that it’s hard to escape the suspicion that the plot, and most of the characters, are there as a clumsy framework on which to hang the politics. All the boxes are certainly ticked: globalisation, the killing of Carlo Giuliani at Genoa, Palestine, the dilemmas of a teenage Muslim girl in modern Britain, the decline of union power, the Butler report … But why does Clare care about any of it? Why does Julian? Why, come to that, does Clare care about Julian, who first rapes her and then acts like a punchable cretin for the next three years?

Herein lies the dilemma of the ‘political’ novelist. If it wasn’t for the Politics, with a capital P, this novel could perhaps have been made to work; Miller could have focussed more on making the characters believable, and on telling a story led by them rather than imposed onto them. Yet if it wasn’t for the Politics, this novel would have no reason to exist. One of these days we’ll get a political novelist who will be able to square this circle. For now, though, we’re still waiting.

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