Patrick Langley: Arkady
Jackson and his toddler brother Frank are on holiday in Spain with their parents. Frank is in a crèche while Jackson is left to his own devices under the watchful eyes of his parents. One day, he seems unable to find them. A waiter takes him in hand and when Frank returns from the crèche, a carer looks after them. The father turns up later in something of a state. It seems his wife is missing. When the police appear the next day, the father loses control. Jackson decides he and his brother must search for their mother and manage to sneak off. They do not find her.
We jump a few years ahead. The brothers, now adolescents are living in a flat in a high-rise with an old man called Leonard. We have no idea who Leonard is nor what happened to their parents. We know they are in a large city and that the block of flats they live in, somewhat away from the centre, is gradually emptying as people are leaving or being evicted. Indeed, Leonard, who is in poor health, may have to leave. We also learn that work is being sent offshore and that mass redundancies are taking place. The banks got greedy and now they’re fucked,’ says Leonard, dropping his fork to the table. ‘And so are we.
The boys are at a local school but often play truant. Both, but Jackson in particular, spend much time exploring the decaying city. Jackson has found an abandoned office on the seventh floor of a building and makes it his office. Here he educates his brother, helping him develop his artistic skills. Frank, the extrovert – Jackson seems much more introverted – has artistic talent. Frank insists on drawing Arkady, a looming figure with a blank, faceless head and a blue-and-white striped shirt who is seemingly imagined but who, Frank insists is real. Jackson also teaches him practical skills: how to crowbar open a fire escape, short-circuit certain alarms, or scavenge food.
Jackson has managed to buy a (probably stolen) bicycle and on one of his excursions he finds an abandoned houseboat. Frank is not impressed. It is not in good condition. However they repair it and dig it out and christen it Arkady, partially because it is their ark and partially because of Frank’s imaginary figure.
I admit that I wondered about the use of the name Arkady. It is a Russian name, meaning from Arcadia, and could be used as a somewhat satirical mocking of how the world of this novel is definitely anti-Arcadian. There are a lot of real and fictitious people called Arkady with an obvious possibility being Arkady Strugatsky who, with his brother Boris wrote science fiction novels that could have influenced Langley. Obviously he could not have chosen Boris for the name of the boat/Frank’s imaginary character. I must say that I thought of Orson Welles’ film Mr. Arkadin but that is probably completely irrelevant.
The world, in this novel is falling apart. There are huge protests that are brutally oppressed, with private police and private corporations holding sway. It is not difficult to see that this is a direct satire on contemporary Britain. The book was published in 2018 and this review is being written in 2023. The five years since publication have shown how prescient Langley was, with events such as mass evictions, brutal clamping-down on protests and rich corporations taking over becoming much more of a reality than was the case in 2018, before covid and before Johnson was prime minister.
Our heroes are caught up in the protests and we learn that there is a group called Red Citadel that is resisting. They have a base in the North of the country and our heroes head up there in the barge. Leonard, we learn in passing, is now dead and the building in which they live is being demolished.
The Citadel is disguised but they track it down. It contains a motley group of people and includes artists, ecowarriors and people who have been driven out of their homes. However, the land they are using is private and owned by a large corporation called Pendragon (in another witty bit of satire – Pendragon is King Arthur’s family name). Our heroes get involved in the group to some extent but it becomes clear that while they are involved, they do not fully fit in with the others. However Pendragon want their land back and have gone to court to get it back and, if the court order is not obeyed, they are prepared to use whatever means necessary to enforce it.
Langley is clearly showing how much the UK is falling apart, veering to the right, with private corporations dominating, ordinary people suffering and as the protesters state on several occasions, profits being put before people. As mentioned above this has become more of a reality in the five years since the book was first published.
While the two brothers do join the resistance to a certain degree, it is clear, doubtless to a great extent because of their early loss of their parents, they remain, above all, close to one another, despite the obvious differences in their respective characters. They may not always get on and do fight but ultimately, for each of them, their brother is what really matters in life. We see this from the beginning where Jackson drags his brother round in a wheeled duffle bag to look for their mother and it will continue throughout the book.
The other glimmer of hope is that people are, somehow, getting by outside the dystopian city, which is, presumably, at least in part, based on London. Life can go on outside the city.
This is certainly an excellent dystopian novel, helped by the fact that despite the horrors of the corporatisation of Britain and how grim it all might well be, we are nor entirely lost – yet.
First published in 2018 by Fitzcarraldo