London Revenant, by Conrad Williams (who I briefly wrote about here), begins with It. This person known as It is also known, or will come to be known, as the Pusher, so named by the media because he sneaks through London's tube stations, pushing people in front of oncoming trains. Many of It's victims die, but not all of them do. One, we learn late in the novel, lost an arm in the attack, but after her recovery she moved out of London and became a shepherd in the Hebrides. After relating this information, on of the novel's characters says that he believes that she's never been happier.
The above is a hint at one of this novels themes, which is that modern life, especially modern urban life, often turns people into dead-eyed sheep, and only extreme action can snap a person out of that state. So that's one of the themes. One of many. Here are some more: the question of identity; love; loss; history, and how it haunts the present; and the idea of smaller, secret hidden societies flourishing inside large cities. I think there are others in there that I'm forgetting. London Revenant is 227 pages long, so maybe you won't be surprised if I tell you that many, if not most, of those themes are given short shrift.
Basically, the story is this: Adam Buckley is a man in his early thirties, living in London after moving from a rural area in northern England. He has two jobs, one working at a flower stand during the day, the other as a bartender at night. His girlfriend, Laura, has recently broken up with him, though he's still deeply in love with her. And he's narcoleptic. These sudden attacks of unwanted sleep are becoming more frequent an disorienting as the novel begins.
Adam has a small circle of friends, like Greg, who's a hard-drinking writer who has a sitcom pilot in the works at the BBC. Adam also hangs out with Meddie, a girl with whom he works at the bar, and her friends Iain and Yoyo. Of those three, Yoyo is the only one that Adam actually likes, but his current rut sweeps him along with them every few nights.
Two things threaten to jump-start Adam and bounce him free of his routine existence, with which he has grown extremely disenchanted. One of those is a woman named Nuala, who moves into his building. She's a sort of hippy, who lives life as she wants to live it, you see, and Adam is struck by this. They develop a loose physical relationship, and she drops in and out of the novel at largely random intervals. The other thing is Adam's increasing awareness of his own double life. Because on one hand, yes, he's Adam Buckley, liver of the life I've described above, but on the other hand he's Monck, citizen and soldier of an underground world which makes its home in an around London's tube stations. In London (or "Topside", as this other society refers to our world), Adam exists as a sort of unwitting double agent, his ultimate goal being to find and kill Blore. Blore is It, or the Pusher, whose violent activities -- the scope of which have been escalating, to include train derailments -- threatens to exposer this underworld to Topside's prying eyes.
Adam passes into his life as Monck during what he takes to be attacks of narcolepsy. But this other life is real, a fact he eventually accepts, even though not everything he thinks he experiences during these attacks turns out that have actually happened, nor do they all involve his life as Monck. So, all that stuff about Monck and Odessa and their quest for the Face, that's all real. That time Adam is out with Meddie and sees the tree with all the dead babies in the branches...that probably didn't happen.
This novel is, occasionally, hallucinatory. But only occasionally. I'm not clear why Adam's narcolepsy, if that is what he's suffering from, sometimes reveals hidden truths, and sometimes exposes him to nightmare imagery that not only is all in his head, but is sometimes maybe in the head of whoever he's with at the moment. Or why both characters seem to forget about this imagery shortly after witnessing it.
This novel, as I said, is 227 pages long. It took me roughly two weeks to read. Part of that is my fault, I'll admit, but damn it, this book is slow. If I had to read one more passage like this...
I stepped off at St. Paul's and took the escalators up to the exit. Outside, I felt the same lurching sense of diminishment I felt whenever I exited the Tube. Down there was all about suffocation, enclosure; the compression of air, time and space. Then suddenly you found yourself thrown into the space of the big city, with the sky jetting off in every direction above you. I also felt slightly sick. I don't like it. I don't like it. The crush. The people breathing on you. The weight on the tunnels. One day it will all pile in. It will all collapse. I can see it.
...I might have become narcoleptic myself. Now, that writing isn't bad, but the style is a mix of the ordinary and the high-toned, and that's a mix that makes my eyes glaze over. I'd almost prefer flat-out bad writing, because often, at least in the horror genre, bad writers have a habit of getting to the point. My eyes spent a lot of time skittering over passages like that, returnin to them, to try to read them correctly, only to skitter past again. These passages aren't difficult, but they don't matter, either. They offer no information that the reader doesn't already have, and they also don't offer any reading pleasure in and of themselves. On the evidence of London Revenant, Conrad Williams, I'm afraid to say, has absolutely no sense of pacing. The paragraph I quoted above is repeated in some form or another over and over again, throughout the book, and it drove me crazy.
Another thing Williams has trouble with is prioritizing his themes. I listed all those themes above, and reading them, and now having read a plot synopsis, you might think that the ones about identity, and history haunting the present, and hidden cities would dominate. The answer is yes to "identity" and a "sort of" to hidden cities, but "history" gets shafted in favor of "love", because Williams spends a lot of time on Adam's lingering passion for Laura. But I simply didn't care about that. I couldn't have cared less about that, to be honest. At the end of the book, why do I know more about Laura -- who does appear in the book, but her time "on-stage" comes out, I would guess, to fewer than ten pages -- than I do about the underground society? I didn't know anything about that place. I didn't know how it worked, and I didn't know who any of the people were (save, eventually, Blore). Oh, Williams gives names to a lot of those people, but he doesn't let us learn anything about them.
In place of learning about that society, much of the time Williams spends on the idea of hidden cities-within-cities revolves around a bizarre sublot in which Meddie, Iain and Yoyo, following the death of a mutual friend, decide to explore London to the point where they find locations above ground which cannot be located on any map. These locations include a coffee shop. Adam tags along for some of these excursions, and asks for details from Iain or Yoyo about many others. Where did this come from? Where did it end up? I don't know. Does it tie into the underground world? I don't know. Williams simply has fundamental weaknesses when it comes to telling a story.
I really wish this review weren't so negative. I wanted so badly to like this book, because Williams clearly has ambition, and wants to write genre fiction that breaks from the known formulas. And he has done that, and I give him credit for it. But I felt no thrill while reading London Revenant, and spent much of my time spent with it wading through waters that Williams had muddied himself, with no purpose that I could discern. The only thing I'm confident about, in regards the novel's contents, is this: when it comes to modern city life, Conrad Williams is actually kind of ambivelant.