- 13 Apr 21
The Waiting Is The Hardest Part
The trick with what has now come to be called 'speculative fiction' - isn't all fiction speculative? What's wrong with 'Science Fiction' as a classification? - is to make it just believable enough so as to disturb. Niall Bourke's debut novel - Kilkenny-born, London-based, shortlisted for the 2015 Costa Short Story Award - is set in a dystopian (there's that cliché out of the way and done, let us not speak of it again) future where everyone and their Ma - literally - live their lives in a queue, the giant line of the title. We open on Willard waking to another day of "Dirtandshitandroutine" - sound familiar? - in the ramshackle tent he shares with his aged mother, or perhaps she's not aged at all, how could you tell in this shanty world? Every morning, he stacks his meagre possessions in the corner of the raggedy tent, "just in case the line moves, just in case it moves, just in case it ever moves."
His neighbours have been there all his life, he's lined up one place in front of the Addisons and one place behind the devout Mr Hummel. As a boy, Willard attended Hummel's hedge-school and at each lesson the children chanted the following litany of exposition.
"The line has existed longer than anyone knows. Our parents before us, and our parent's parents before them, have sacrificed everything so that we may be where we are today. We owe it to them all to get to the end. Or at least to get closer; then may it be our children who continue our journey."
They also repeated the rules, over and over again. Nobody has ever left the line and you shouldn't either, or your family will pay the price. There's nothing out there anyway, so why would you? And whatever you do, don't skip the line. Do not skip the line. You can only move down the placings once, when you marry, and Willard's girlfriend Nyla is prepared to do just that, which, as the rules state, prove that it's true love.
Hummel also has stories of chaos elsewhere, he's one of the elders who keep order and others like him distribute rations that are periodically dropped in, presumably by the fortunate people who have already reached the good place that they're all queuing for. It is only when there is actual movement, for the first time in who knows how long, that we see what happens to those who break the rules. Willard comes across a transgressor, tied between two trees. An elder encourages passers-by to slice off some skin. "Fuck, says Willard." Fuck indeed.
So far, so horrible. The novel shifts on its axis when Willard's mother dies - and Hummel goes bowling with her head. Amongst her possessions, her son finds a thin book, sown into her rags. "Welcome to The Corporation: Your Handbook", the cover proclaims. This discovery sets the second act in motion as Willard and Nyla, despite the warnings and the very real threat of punishment, break ranks and light out to see what's actually beyond the line of sight. As they make their way to the city of Nodnol - go on, work it out - Bourke takes everything to a Swiftian nth degree, extrapolating a 'speculated' future from our own present.
The hat has to come off to Bourke here. The novel's first half, while well handled, isn't really all that different from other works in the same genre that you might have read before, but the way he explains how everyone got where they are is both imaginative and, indeed, very nearly believable. Cue the dramatic music; aren't we all just waiting in line, for a promise that'll never be fulfilled? There's even a hint of Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman in the way he wraps it all up. An entertaining and thought-provoking - the refugee crisis, data as currency, etc. etc. - read with which to pass the time, while you wait.