“We are the Fuckin West”: Guy Gunaratne, In Our Mad and Furious City

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There is no one out here except you bro. You did this. You have to take it man. Take the responsibility, like, even though it’s hard.

He looked up at me then, his eyes terrified and entreating. I had to make sure he heard me.

It was you who did this bruv. No one else.

I felt his hands let go of my arms. I moved toward him. I tried to keep my tone gentle as I knew that my words could pierce him open. He backed off still, his face creasing up with confusion and pain. I wouldn’t let it go.

It weren’t the West bruv. We are the fuckin West, Irfan. It was you.

I am very glad that Liz pointed me towards Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City as a possible choice for my Brit Lit survey class next winter. I have been looking for a book that fits the unifying theme I have in mind, “belonging”–a broad concept I like because it can apply to the selection process for readings (which raises all the questions about canon formation that make a survey class so challenging in the first place) as well as to key topics we are likely to cover, including class, gender, race, and nation. Who belongs? What does it mean to belong, whether to a family, a community, or a country, or, for that matter, a literary movement or tradition? Who decides, who guards the gates, what might be the price of entry or the cost of exile?

I’m pretty happy at this point with Wuthering Heights as the representative 19th-century novel, and I’m fairly certain I’ll also include A Room Of One’s Own as another longer text. My top contender for a contemporary novel was originally Small Island, but although it does turn out to be one we could order, I’m anxious about its length, which is also among the reasons I’ve backed away from White Teeth. (I’m not, obviously, unwilling to assign long novels, but range and variety matter a lot for this particular kind of course, so I’m not sure I want to dedicate a lot of time to any single text.)

gunaratneI’m not yet 100% sure that In Our Mad and Furious City is the right book for my purposes, but it is definitely the front-runner now: Liz has good instincts! For one thing, it is relatively compact: the edition I read is 274 not particularly dense pages. I also found it really engrossing. It took me a dozen or so pages to adjust to the voices–it is told by five different first-person narrators–and especially to their language, as most of the speakers use a vernacular which is unfamiliar to me. The effort to learn it, to hear it, to feel it, is part of the novel’s point, I think, and while I did continue to stumble occasionally over idioms I didn’t understand, it got much easier as I went along. (If I do teach it, I think I might bring in the audio book, which Gunaratne notes is read by “a fellow NW native,” to clarify how this language really sounds: I listened to the Audible sample and it made sense of a lot of things.) I ended up reading the whole novel in one sitting: I was that involved in it. I think–I hope–that bodes well for how my students might respond to it.

In Our Mad and Furious City tells the story of each of the five narrators over the course of a 48 hour period fraught with tension because of the recent murder of a soldier by an Islamic extremist, an incident closely resembling the 2013 murder of Lee Rigby. Anger and suspicion flare; marches and riots ensue. Three of the narrators are teenagers who live in or near a housing project called the Stones Estate. Each of them is navigating his own complicated path out of adolescence, trying to define an identity that both is and isn’t defined by their family history. The other two characters, older, carry their own heavy baggage, one from the trauma of life in Belfast during the Troubles, the other as a part of the Windrush generation. Over the course of the novel we learn all the connections between the characters and come to see parallel themes in their stories, especially around ideas of national identity, political conflict, and religious extremism. (Here is a very interesting commentary by Gunaratne on what motivated him to explore these particular kinds of stories.)

gunaratne-3Although there are clearly big ideas at stake in the novel, Gunaratne does a good job making his characters’ lives seem intensely personal: they do not come across as devices serving only a didactic purpose. Perhaps oddly, the novel reminded me of S. E. Hinton’s classic teen novel The Outsiders: although almost everything about the context and action of In Our Mad and Furious City is different, I felt the same poignancy in it around the idea that youth is, or should be, a time of great but often thwarted possibility. Living on the margins as these young men do, pressed on every side by poverty and prejudice and impossible conflicts of loyalty, realizing even their modest dreams seems almost too much for them to hope for. While the novel is intimate in these ways, though, it is also about British history and politics, with the square at the Estate representing a microcosm of the larger society and its interconnected problems. The novel’s interwoven voices are at once a sign of its many divisions and (maybe) a formal reflection of how its complicated diversity could ultimately create a kind of unity.

On this first read a couple of things about In Our Mad and Furious City did strike me as weaknesses or imperfections. For one, all of the youthful narrators are male and there isn’t really any built-in resistance to the way they look at and talk about women. I didn’t find the Prologue and Epilogue very effective, and I also felt that the teens’ voices sometimes seemed improbably articulate and insightful for what was supposed to be “in the moment” narration. (If there’s any clear signal that any of it besides the framing bits is retrospective, I missed it.) But there’s a lot about the novel that already stands out as “teachable,” from the voices it includes and the stories they tell to specific questions such as how the actual cause of the mosque fire affects our interpretation of the novel’s concluding crisis. There’s a lot I would have to learn more about to do a good job working through the novel with students (the amount I currently know about grime, for instance, is, well, nothing at all!) but it would be interesting work, and challenging my own expertise is one of the reasons I am trying to refresh my reading lists in the first place. I can also already see some interesting points of connection with Wuthering Heights, especially Heathcliff’s “monstrosity” and that novel’s own exploration of alienation and extremism.