Redressing the Balance: This Book Isn’t Nearly as Stupid as the Title Suggests… Or Is It?

For all of the claims made by myself and my publisher for the audacious anti-literary bent that drives my latest novel, This Book is Fucking Stupid, the fact that the core thread – the story itself – is essentially a straightforward piece of contemporary literary fiction is something that’s been very much underplayed.

As the paperback edition is out today, I thought it would be an idea to post an excerpt from one of the more conventional narrative passages, if only to prove to the world that as a writer I am capable of ‘normal’ things like plot and character development (after a fashion) and not only about text that function on a theoretical level…. Ok, well I half mean it…

 

from This Book is Fucking Stupid

 

It was just another day at the office, the same as any other. Ben sat at his desk. He had spent the last three hours trying desperately to compile his latest report based on a series of site visits to out-of-town shopping developments ahead of Friday’s deadline, but it was proving nigh on impossible. For a start, the buildings were in a poor state of repair: his surveys had uncovered a number of significant structural flaws which were bad news all round. The trouble was, he found these modern prefabricated monstrosities composed of concrete and corrugated iron the most uninspiring of all buildings to assess, and while he had most of the information he required to hand, some of his notes were a little patchy regarding some of the sites, as he had been tired, bored and hungover while conducting the surveys. That said, he didn’t really find buildings in themselves all that inspiring. Surveying hadn’t been a calling for him, but then, for whom is surveying a calling, a passion? Surveying was a job, which required an even and pragmatic approach to factual data and a grasp of figures and certain scientific concepts regarding the deterioration of concrete, the weakening of iron girders, the flammability of certain materials and so on.
    The appreciation of architecture was not a prerequisite for becoming a government inspector of commercial property. Yes, a civil servant. But the modern out-of-town retail park developments were still the worst: once you had seen one, you had seen them all. But feeling tired and grotty made any report on such buildings even more wearisome, and with a tight deadline looming, even more troublesome to a man who was not a big fan of typing long reports, preferring, if possible, to keep communications down to brief notes and bullet-points. Equally troublesome, his phones – landline and mobile – kept ringing, interfering with his train of thought. No sooner had he regained his flow and begun formulating a coherent sentence detailing the defects in the roofing structures or damp coursing than another call would demand his attention and haul him away from the job at hand for just long enough for him to forget exactly what it was he had been about to write next.
    Ben sat and rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. His skin felt rough and dry, his eyes sensitive and watery. He had been staring at the screen for what felt like hours. How long it had really been, he was uncertain. The text was beginning to drift before his eyes as he read it again and again. The text was beginning to drift before his eyes as he read it again and again. He was exhausted, and this was reflected in his sallow appearance. He had spent the last week and a half driving long-distance between the sites he was surveying for this report – Wednesday last, Southampton, Thursday last Birmingham, Friday last Nottingham, followed by Bath on Monday, Stoke on Tuesday, Newcastle on Wednesday and Norwich this morning – before returning to the office with a sheaf of scribbled notes, digital camera shots, notes recorded on a Dictaphone while on the tops of various buildings, muffled and inaudible due to high winds blasting across the mic as he had mumbled tiredly and unenthusiastically about various joists and joints. He rubbed his eyes again and returned his bleary eyes to the screen. He rubbed his eyes again and returned his bleary pupils to the screen. He needed a break. Needed to clear his head, to regain his focus. Yes, he had a deadline looming, but he’d never make it like this, he simply couldn’t focus his mind.
    The Foo Fighters’ track ‘The Best of You’ rattled from his pocket for the umpteenth time that day. He loved that song – it rocked – but he was beginning to tire of its polyphonic yet stunted ring-tone version intruding into his life every five minutes. He was also weary of his works mobile. Why they wouldn’t upgrade to something more contemporary and functional like an iPhone or a Blackberry, he had no idea.
    It wasn’t that Ben was a he fan of the iPhone, although he did rather like its multimedia functionality, and its now classic design. He liked its dimensions, a cozy yet suitably chunky 115.5mm x 62.1mm 12.3 and comforting 133g weight. He also had an appreciation for its TFT capacitive touchscreen, even if its sleek surface, with its with its scratch-resistant oleophobic coating, became a slick of greasy thumb-prints within seconds, even while in the pocket, and these obscured the screen, despite its presenting a respectable 320×480 pixel 3.5” view at a density of 165 pixels per inch. Similarly, the Blackberry was a classic example of contemporary design. The Curve 8900 had real appeal. Despite the rather fiddly QWERTY keypad, it was practically a mobile office that would fit in the pocket, and with its 256MB ROM memory, 250ppi display, albeit at a smaller 2.5” – a whole inch smaller than that of the iPhone – its 65K colours made it suitable for checking out pics emailed from different sites while on the move, and then there was the card slot with a reader that could handle an SD card of up to 32GB. It also had the better camera. Still, neither the iPhone nor the Blackberry had a battery life worth writing home about, while the clunky piece of Nokia crap work had provided him with only needed charging once a week.
    He checked the name on the incoming call. It was Ruth, his ‘better half.’ They had been together almost eight years now – long enough for him to have known almost instinctively that it would have been her ringing.
    “Hi, Ru,” he said, half sighing, half croaking, his voice cracked with fatigue.
    “Hey,” she chirruped back.
    A slight pause – as was customary. He never liked to jump in and ask why she was phoning this time – it sounded tetchy, and she was the sensitive type – but she never came straight out with anything either, hence the waggledance of telephonic etiquette each time they spoke, even after all this time. Particularly after all this time: it had become habit, and he knew it. He knew not, however, of a way to break it, or even if there was any point in doing so – or even if he wanted to do so. It was harmless, but did take seconds out of his busy day. Seconds that could have been spent on other matters. He fought this involuntary irritation that he felt – that he had been feeling for the past few weeks, or possibly longer, he’s not been paying that much attention as he’d had a lot going on – and reminded himself that Ruth didn’t actually do anything to annoy him and that his tiredness was simply making him irrationally irritable. It wasn’t his fault he was tired and stressed. It wasn’t her fault he was tired and stressed. He just was.
    “Hey,” he echoed back, as he commonly did. It bought time, breathing space, signalled to her that he was listening, like a call-and-response of ‘Copy,’ ‘Roger.’
    “I was just wondering what time you’d be home for tea tonight,” she said in her usual even, gentle tone.
    He sighed and rubbed his tired, itchy eyes again. Ruth liked her routine. Daily, she called around 3.30 or 4pm to enquire when he’d be home, although he was rarely able to give a specific answer. There were invariably deadlines to be met, which frequently entailed working later than anticipated, however he budgeted his time, however hard he worked, and however closely he worked to the premise that however long one anticipates something taking, double it and add ten per cent to get a more accurate estimate. Then there was the matter of the drive home. On a good day – or a weekend – it would be a 40-minute drive. But on a weekday, during the rush two hours, it could be anything up to an hour and a half, and that was provided there were no accidents, freak storms or other unusual circumstances which may extend the journey time still further. Ben enjoyed driving, but did not enjoy being stuck in slow-moving traffic for hours on end on the same stretches of rode night after night. Open country roads with the windows down, the wind in his hair, shades on and the stereo up loud and his foot the the floor, that was his idea of driving. It was to liberating, that sense of freedom, the idea he could go anywhere he wanted, and fast. It was the precise opposite of being hemmed in between the mushroom walls of the office in which he worked, with its Jacobs Twist Axminster carpet in a fetching shade of blue-grey by the name of Fen and regimented rows of desks, each with identical Dell base units and monitors, accompanied by ergonomic keyboards and mice and standard-issue high-backed office chairs without arms.
    “I dunno,” he replied after a pause. “I’ve got a lot on at the moment.” “Ok, do you think you’ll be home before eight-ahuh?” she asked, her voice rising at the end and a small not-quite-laugh following the last syllable. He pictured her, smiling as she did, her nose wrinkled a little and her eyes half-closed, an endearing expression which he had been fond of from the outset when they had met some seven years ago. How time flew! He had been in his early twenties then, and having recently relocated following the securing of a decent job in Sheffield, Ben had been on the brink of embarkation on his career proper.
    “I don’t know,” he reiterated. “I hope so, but I wouldn’t like to say for definite.”
    “Ok, well I thought we might have chops tonight and they grill in no time, so I shall wait until you get in before starting the tea.”
    “Fine.”
    “Call me when you’re leaving work?”
    “Sure.”
    “Ok, I’ll speak to you later, bye.”
    “Yeah, bye.”
He couldn’t help it, he knew he sounded ‘off.’ The simple fact was that he had been feeling decidedly fractious lately, and it was difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons why. And because he didn’t know, he felt he couldn’t really talk about it with Ruth – what was there to say? It was his problem, and he didn’t want to push it onto her. She had her own things going on, namely the fact that she would soon be unemployed – again. After a succession of unappealing and unsatisfactory temporary jobs, mostly in big corporate offices, the type of place she hated – so many people, so many awful people, the sort she’d not have given a moment of her time to through choice – she had landed herself a fantastic job on a medieval library archiving project. Only now the project was almost done and the funding had run dry and so her contract was to be terminated in a couple of weeks. Ruth’s unemployment, or otherwise low wages did place a strain on things for them financially. Again, Ben never liked to make an issue of it, because to do so would be unfair. He accepted, and in some ways, thrived on fulfilling his role as the dominant male, the breadwinner. He’d always been ambitious, and while he’d never been certain as to what career he wished to pursue, he’d always been ambitious to earn. A good income, a nice house, a fast car…. It’s what every man wants, and it had always been his dream to live the life, to work hard and to reap the rewards, and to spend those rewards in such a way that everyone who saw him knew it, that he was a successful person.
    But right now he didn’t feel successful, and he was struggling to put his finger on exactly what the root of his niggling discontent was. But he had realised that he was not content, and despite his reasonable income – £42K pa plus car plus mobile phone, etc., was a fair salary, he knew that, although after tax there was little benefit, he felt, to earning £42K over earning £25K. He knew he wasn’t like those he left behind in school, those whose profiles he had read on Friends Reunited….

One Star

 

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They were cunts in school and are still cunts now….

Job-hopping was, historically, considered to be a bad thing. A job was for life, and anyone who had a CV that consisted of an endless catalogue of short-term contracts was perceived as either being unable to stick at anything, or incapable of obtaining anything more than seasonal or temporary work – usually menial, low-grade employment that was undemanding and required minimal intellect or, worse still, the kind of person who made a habit of getting themselves sacked. Times have changed. Some people actually choose to flit between jobs and call it ‘freelancing’. Others have short-term work forced upon them, and it’s no longer simply the blue-collar types. Offices and ‘contact centres’ (call centres to those who live outside of the corporate environment) are bursting at the seams with temporary staff and staff on fixed-term contracts – to the extent that many large companies actually employ very few staff directly. While the hourly rate for a temp may be higher on paper, subtracting the cost of benefits such as staff pension and sick pay and it’s easy to see why companies do it, although the benefits are immeasurably in their favour over those of the employee. Many of these temporary staff are educated to degree level, yet are still unable to secure permanent contracts. Even in positions that require higher qualifications and levels of experience, the situation is the same: universities are employing teaching fellows on a basis of a semester at a time, for one or two hours of teaching a week.

Again, there is an immense disparity between the idea of job-hopping as a lifestyle choice and the common reality for those who find themselves forced into a life of what Ivor Southwood refers to in his book Non-Stop Inertia as ‘job precarity’. It isn’t fun. And yet recruitment agencies and those who enjoy the ‘freelancing’ lifestyle (usually the kind of people who get head-hunted and land a short-term contract of a year or two in highly-paid executive roles) all emphasise the empowering nature of the ‘freedom’ this approach to employment affords the individual. For those who lack the comfort of a financial buffer and the capacity to earn large sums in short periods of time, the uncertainty and lack of stability that arises from short-term employment contracts is is anything but liberating, and every bit as depressing as being stuck in the same dead-end job for a decade or more.

The endless quest for a new contract and the endless stream of rejections the endless applications elicit is just as soul-crushing as knowing that your life is slowly slipping by while you sit in the same office churning out the same meaningless shit each dull day. At least that unfulfilling rut pays the bills, ensures the rent gets paid and affords the kind of security that comes will a pension, sick pay and all the rest. As a job-hopping freelancer, you are not your own boss: you’re a slave to the quest for the next thing and the search for a new boss to fuck you and discard you along with all the short-term contract trash not worthy of a permanent contract.

Still, surely no employment can be as depressing as Friends Reunited, arguably the first social networking site – if re-establishing contact with people you already know qualifies as ‘networking’. More often than not, people lose contact for a reason: the friends who are worth keeping, you make the effort to maintain contact with, and the effort is mutual. If you want to feel old, look up your old schoolmates. Check out their photos and see how their youthful looks have faded as they’ve grown fat,old, bald and saggy. Read their profiles and see how happy they are with their pathetic lots as they plough through life unquestioningly, aspiring to nothing more than a fortnight in Spain to provide a change of scenery from the 9-5 which, though monotonous, is the pinnacle of their capabilities, and as they like their colleagues and are able to leave their 2.4 children with their parents or grandparents while they go for a few drinks down the pub on a Friday night, it’s no cause for complaint. The ‘successful’ ones are no better really: leaving behind their small-town roots and making for the big smoke after graduation, they’re rich, jet-setting and love their Autumn skiing trips, mini-breaks to Paris and Rome and will have seen the world long before they retire at 50, but none of this changes the fact that they were cunts in school and are still cunts now.

friends-reunited-08

Friends Reunited: keeping track of a bunch of cunts you never liked in the first place

The desire to rebuild bridges with people you were never friends with in the first place is simply a manifestation of the anxiety of ageing, the fear of losing one’s youth and all ties with it. Never mind that you hated school and were bullied mercilessly: you were young and had your whole life ahead of you. Rather than face the fact that you’re halfway through your time on the planet, it’s infinitely preferable to delude yourself that on reflection, school wasn’t that bad, in fact it was good fun. But however hard you work on kidding yourself, however much you force yourself and everyone to swallow the lie that you were cool in school, the bullying was just banter and that you didn’t spend those years lonely, depressed and yearning for something, anything, that would take you out of that hateful environment, every once in a while something will trigger a rush of recollection and it will all come screaming back at you. Sometimes, you can’t help but yield to those pangs of curiosity, when something random makes you remember a name, a face, an occasion and it drags you back like an undertow and you wonder what that person, those people are doing now. And before you know it, you’re trawling Friends Reunited or Facebook. You can’t help yourself, it’s a morbid fascination that makes you recoil in horror at that ageing face, that flabby beer gut, those sagging tits you lusted over when they were pert and teenage and hadn’t been ravaged by three screaming brats by three different fathers, none of whom is the current husband, hanging off them but you still go on through those family snaps, the pictures of the works nights out, the hen night for that slapper who laughed at you when you said ‘crotches’ when you meant ‘groynes’ in geography class. You can still hear that honking sound that ended with a snort and your blood boils with repressed anger even though it was almost a full fifteen years ago now. And that’s why you try not to think about it, because when the recollections resurface, the old wounds open up and you find yourself staring into the gaping gash straight into your fear-filled soul that’s been shrivelled by a decade of corporate dehumanisation. You need to snap out of it, now.

 

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