Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Bricks by Leon Jenner – reviewed by John Greenwood

How to review a book that is categorised by its publisher as fiction ("All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental") but which refutes its own fictitiousness?
I hope you listen and do not see them [the words in the book] as entertainment. They are true. This is not fiction, even if they make me sell it as such.
To confuse matters further, the only two named characters in the book are historical persons, Julius Caesar and Paulinus, although the accounts of their struggles against the Celts of Britain are indeed highly fictionalised. Moreover, the novel, if it is such, contains two lengthy appendices full of historical source material and philosophical discussion. The reader will find very little descriptive narrative here, apart from a few chapters in the middle which rewrite the Roman invasions of Britain as a triumphant victory for the indigenous people.

Several reviewers have suggested that there is a deliberate ambiguity here. Should we see the book as the delusional musings of an unreliable narrator recovering from a lengthy period of depression? But this is no self-referential po-mo game  - there is no ironic subtext behind the sermonising. No, I believe that Bricks an earnest attempt to write a philosophical novel in the style of Thus Spake Zarathustra or News from Nowhere.

The thesis of Bricks is as follows: pre-Roman Britain was a pre-lapsarian paradise inhabited by a morally superior, democratic and wise indigenous hunter-gathering people who lived in blissful harmony with the sacred landscape of Britain, and whom later historians called the Celts. The druids are magical immortals who lived alongside the Celts and sometimes inhabited their bodies. Then the Romans came, and with them the Roman mindset of conquest and acquisition, which set in train the development of modern civilisation: scientific discovery, agriculture, towns, institutions, all of which have caused immense harm, and caused the people of Britain to forget their true spiritual natures. The druids still dwell amongst us, disguised as builders, trying to guide us back to the right path, among whose number the narrator counts himself.

Historically speaking, this is all of course nonsense. The book also regurgitates every scrap of new age folderol you can think of. Craftsmanship is good, mass production bad. Science is arrogant in seeking to understand the mysteries of the universe (although String Theory and M-Theory "meet with [his] approval"). Reason is ultimately futile. Children are born wise, the reincarnations of earlier sages. Sex is a form of prayer a la D. H. Lawrence. Women alone possess this magical power of sex with which they can spellbind men. Ley lines of mystical energy criss-cross the land. Folks in olden days had secret magical wisdom which is now lost (but indigenous tribes preserve it). Everybody nowadays worships the God of Economics. Plus there are a few new claims I'd not come across before:
A plant will tell you if it is safe to eat it. Listen properly and it will tell you its deep history and all of its uses.
Every species evolves a certain way, purely as the female chooses.
[Conscious quantum pulses] could be described as a fight between matter and anti-matter, with anti-matter gradually gaining the upper hand. So we age and as a result must die.
If you want proof of our [the druids'] return, just look at the behaviour of animals, notably the fox. Have you noticed they are getting bolder?
Oddly, and rather at odds with all this mysticism and pseudoscience, there is elsewhere a flavour of Daily Mail online comment threads:
Don't you see that political correctness paves the way for the next Hitler?
Those [thugs] who want to hurt you by taunt or violence or damage to the things you need and cherish. Do not see them as human...Pre-emption is the best defence, and from this high order I can tell you that you can bash'em. Do this without conversation. Just hit and hit and hit. Believe me, it feels good...
If you're not convinced by this portrait of the pre-Roman Britons as the source of all human goodness, the long appendices reproduce contemporary accounts of the superstitions and brutality of Celtic customs: human sacrifice, torture of widows, sons forbidden to see their fathers in public until they are of fighting age, druidic excommunication, slaves and servants immured on their masters' funeral pyres. While Jenner is right to point out that most of these accounts from the viewpoint of the Romans, and therefore subject to bias and possibly even propaganda, what are we to make of their inclusion? Although the appendices begin in an appropriately dry, academic way, the author cannot help but continue the book's rambling, patronising monologue in much the same voice as before. This is one reason I think we are entitled to see the book not as merely fiction (although the jacket blurb tries hard to frame it all in that context, possibly a belated rescue attempt) but as a political programme, however outlandish:
[Celtic Britain] was a society that may in effect be the model of an advanced society of the future, existing without a nation state, yet able to defend itself.
Well frankly, no. I'll take antibiotics, the rule of law and the welfare state over woad, a ruling priestly caste and semi-starvation, thanks.

The whole thing is a muddle, but thankfully not too long. The philosophical thesis is bonkers. The tone lurches from condescension, through turgid intellectual histories (a long account of the conflict between materialism and idealism is particularly obtuse), to whinging. One of the bricklayer narrator's gripes (apart from the decay of humanity), is that his employers don't pay him enough, or make his tea too weak. In some instances, he is not even offered tea. "Aaargh!" is his despairing cry.

There are a few well-written and interesting paragraphs. The military campaigns are described with a certain brio and immediacy, but ultimately fails to engage because of the lack of any real characters of dialogue, and the drama constantly interrupted by exposition, cod philosophy and ponderous verse. I did like a few lines at the very end exploring the etymology of the word "coombe". Of ancient words still in use, the author writes:
Seemingly so perfect that, like a shark or a crocodile they have flowed through time without much of the friction of evolution.
Published by Coronet, a recently revived imprint of Hodder and Stoughton, Bricks is beautifully produced with a lovely cover by Jorn Kaspuhl and equally attractive illustrations inside. Having looked at some of the other books on Coronet's list (a lot of Chris Ryan SAS thrillers and books about how angels can help you), it's clear that the parent company are not pushing Coronet as a home of highbrow literature, but they are a major publisher, which makes Bricks all the stranger. I work at a charity bookshop, and from time to time we get donations of self-published books. Often (not always) these are flakey conspiracy theories, extreme right-wing political diatribes, new age mysticism or dreary heroic fantasy. Bricks combines all of these, and were it not for the rumoured 250,000 people who downloaded it as an audiobook before print publication (a frightening enough thought in itself), I would have been astonished that anybody at Hodder thought this worth investing in.

Bricks by Leon Jenner. Published by Coronet, 2011. ISBN 9781444706284, RRP £12.99, Hardback, 136pp.

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