Skin Lane, Neil Bartlett [344pp, £10.99, Serpent's Tail]

B S Johnson in The Unfortunates is famed for writing a book that with the exception of the starting and the end chapter, the reader is encouraged to read the remainder in a random manner. Similarly, between this paragraph and the end, feel free to read whichever cut takes your fancy and in whatever order. Why? People tire of reading reviews whose sole purpose is to deride the work in hand; those wishing something more positive can select just the juicy cuts. In contrast, there is a perverse reader whose chief delight is drawing up a seat ring-side for the review equivalent of a bare-knuckle bout. Such a reader is advised to select the cheap cuts only. Lastly, while acquiring a couple of worthless Master of Arts degrees in English based subjects, I came across lecturers, who probably never had an original idea in their head, deride B S Johnson's bid to create something new. Here's the upper-cut for B S: -

Offal: at times, Bartlett's prose is tough and indigestible, defying easy assimilation. The opening chapters suffer from sentences drained of impact by the over-use of brackets. Thereafter, he delights in creating long unwieldy structures, that have a minute main part, dwarfed by the remainder; the whole, cobbled together by a semi-colon, straining to keep sense and sentence going to the end of the stop. I have not seen anything quite like it since reading Ann Radcliffe's,
The Italian. Perhaps, Bartlett is enrichening his prose with stylistic, literary allusions; trading in Gothic tropes. Ten out of ten for pastiche, but I wished he had not bothered. Simple sentences, would have served the work better than overly alembicated strangulated syntax. That said, I must point out that much of Bartlett's style aids his purpose admirably.

Surloin: the purpose of symbolic grammar is to use stylistic devices to accentuate meaning. Bartlett specialises in a spatial disruption of semantic wholes: paragraphs, sentences that ought to belong together are broken by line spacing. The result is not a minimalist lack of cohesion, an inarticulate stutter, but a pause for thought and consideration. The weight of extra white space, gives force and emphasis to the unfolding crisis.

Mince: you never know quite what you are getting. In
Skin Lane you are never sure of the narrator. It is not, yet another doubtful case of the unreliable narrator, telling it how it isn't, but more the point of view is skewed by a mischievous demon. You wonder about the possibility of narration by a lesser God; not quite  up to omniscience, just a few asides, some that dip in to present tense, despite sequential historical unfolding of the tale. The narrator does not seem to be the author, either. It is not an intrusive author, but an intrusive sprite, who insists upon the occasional commentary from the side-lines, followed by a not-quite conclusive end summation. Neither God nor author, but a character working in the margins of the story. The approach works, but on occasions, less of the `character', would have been welcome. To be fair, a virtue of the interjections is that it provides some relief between the psychological crises. In mince, the meat is often padded with shredded fat, the narrator's closing chapters, could have been stripped of much stodge. 

Pigs ears: are actually very good, singe the hair of them, slice thinly, and let them cook and crackle in their own fat. A short aside from my usual pomposity: Bartlett has a wicked sense of humour. His choice of names brings a wry smile to the face, such as a Jewish Furriers sited at: Number Four Skin Lane. His main character, Mr Freeman is anything but. Further, he is known at Mr F, but until the drama of the narrated events, he has fought shy of the F-word and associative acts. Unlike a camp tailor-made character, from a seventies sitcom: Mr F is most definitely not-Free.

Choice cuts: without recourse to the slander of being derivative or the intellectual dead end of intertextuallity,
Skin Lane is firmly located within the modern, London grotesque. Peter Ackroyd remains the master of this particular textual facade, establishing the Neo-Gothic's supervenient relationship to London with Hawksmoor, The House of Doctor Dee, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, et al.  But, Bartlett's Skin Lane is a fine addition to this urban landscape of the macabre. There is something of the overdrawn, mannerist, exaggeration in this school that stands firmly upon the shoulders of Dickens. Bartlett's Mrs Kesselman could easily be smuggled inside an edition of Master Humphrey's Clock, as could the city location of his plot. There is a certain pleasure by proxy in all of this, one reads a new book while revisiting previously appreciated literature. A result of this is that the book is less of a shock, cushioned by its similarity to other texts, themes, characters and place: the possibility of the finding the defamiliar fades.

Tripe: there is a cracking quotation from the British Olympic champion of no-holds-barred-dis-Combobulation that is tantamount to a category mistake. The writer, reviewer and fine critic, suggests that
Skin Lane is a “taut little psycho-shocker”. It isn't. Aye, there are tensions, but really very little shocks in store. As for psycho? On the pulp side, Tom Harris Lecter would eat this book for breakfast washed down no doubt with a heavy, full-flavoured Rioja, on the pretentious post-modern side Brat Easton Ellis would have our central character, Mr Freeman, for breakfast, dinner, tea and tapas bar with or without, a lengthy Rioja. It does not do Bartlett justice to put his Skin Lane in with the rest of the shlock-oholics. He has deeper, more lasting and important pleasures to offer than any possible shock value.

Rump: does my research look big in this? There is an old adage, never let your research shew. It is about time they finally put a bullet in a couple of old adages maugre and in spite of the power of the grey vote. There is a big, thick juicy cut of this book that really entertains, whilst also convincing the reader of many of the characters' reality. The detail regarding the skin trade is not just a prop, part of the fabric of the texts enabling the author to work his masterpiece, but a distinct pleasure of learning something about a hidden and perhaps, (no pun intended) dying trade. Bartlett's treatment of this subject thoroughly convinces; there is a sensuality to his words that treats of pelts, tools and cuts: his writing is almost tactile.

The Champion's Portion: if not a psycho-shocker, then what is
Skin Lane? The book's greatest strength is its treatment of its central character. Mr Freeman undergoes mental disintegration, a re-value of all values, an aching discovery of self and a liberation made possible by a conflagration of the soul. Bartlett's handling of Freeman is masterful, moving and in a strange way, tender. He is never mawkish. He respects the Golem he has created.

Gristle: if I were to level one criticism of the book, it is that I am not sure why Mr F is suddenly haunted by his dream; a dream which provides the hypostasis to his death and rebirth. Something for me to chew on, but it does not debar that this is a delight of a read, well crafted and well intended.

Last paragraph, please read, I warmed to this book, was intrigued, entertained, and made to think and feel about  how a place becomes part of a man's soul and how that soul can be broken free. A wonderful myth of creation as the latter half of the twentieth century is birthed.

          © Daithidh MacEochaidh 2007