In 1687, Isaac Newton proposed three laws of motion, the third being, in part, “Actioni contrariam semper et æqualem esse riactionem” or “to every action there is always opposed and equal reaction”. Three hundred and nineteen years later, Twitter was launched, and his theory became a parody of itself. Now, anything that anyone does anywhere ever is opposed not by an equal reaction but by somebody shocked and offended enough to write something terse about it in 140 characters, or post a link to a Guardian or Daily Mail column about it, or ask you to sign their petition which only ‘needs’ 38 more signatures to reach 50 signatures (though what will be achieved by their reaching that arbitrary figure is never mentioned and remains nebulous and inescapably sinister [albeit not in any way you can ever put your finger on] which makes you tweet something about being shocked and offended by the ubiquity of pointless petitions and how they undermine more serious petitions and the very concept of the petition itself, and your doing so makes someone else tweet about how they wish they had enough spare time on their hands to complain about people just trying to make the world a little bit better, which makes someone else tweet about how they wish they had enough spare time on their hands to moan about how people have too much spare time on their hands, which makes, which makes, which makes, and so it goes on, a spiral of petty grievances corkscrewing to nowhere.
The world is insane, clearly. Years ago somebody confused the concept that everyone is equally entitled to an opinion with the idea that all opinions are equally valid. People liked the sound of that. It struck a chord. People thought, “yeah, I’m told that one plus one is two but I reckon it is probably at least five,” and then they thought, “equally valid, eh?” and then they voted for UKIP in the European elections. The rest is history.
And so, given how hilariously stupid we now are as a species (and I include myself here, I hope that goes without saying), the idea that something as innocuous as a novel will shock and/or offend someone has become not only whimsical but also inevitable.
Which brings us to Making Nice, a minotaur of a novel, gruff and angry and lost and broken. It shocked and offended me but in a nice way that made me feel all warm inside.
Making Nice is a study of an angry, volatile grief. Alby is not coping well with the death of his mother. He drinks too much. He picks fights with strangers. He picks fights with his brother. He picks fights with his sister. He lashes out with fists and feet and language. He says unforgivable things. He uses sentences that shouldn’t exist. Not really. Not if we are all just going to get along. There are sentences in Making Nice that will make you gasp. That will shock and offend you. Sentences that I cannot quote here in case my mom reads this. And that is saying something. My mom has a pretty strong stomach. She is not offended by just swears.
Making Nice is a novel of offensive sentences surrounded by, or perhaps more accurately, hiding in, beautifully realised stories about grieving and loss. Used needles in a nature reserve. Alby, violent and unpredictable, is, on occasion, deeply unlikeable and in a less expert pair of hands Making Nice would be a difficult read but Alby’s voice is perfect, as unusual and as interesting as the narrator of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Alby is a 21st Century Holden Caulfield; a character in opposition to the world but also its personification. You can’t help but root for the bastard. Sumell’s decision to make this a novel in stories means that you never get bogged down in Alby’s misanthropy. The lightness and humour seep in. And, unlike so many novels in stories that rely on an accumulation of references to build a narrative, the stories in Making Nice interconnect beautifully, illuminating each other as well as working independently. And those sentences, those angry hurtful outbursts, play like existential punch lines to the joke of existence. And good punch lines too. The real shock is not what they say but that they catch you unawares. You laugh despite yourself.
Any Cop?: Making Nice is a little bit special. A truly original portrayal of grief.