As I type, it’s the day before Election Day here in the UK, and I’ve spent a large portion of it in Endland, a nightmarish vision of a ‘distorted and tangential’ England, or, as Etchells puts in in his afterword, ‘a brutal place – isolated and economically divided, rotten with the sour politics, xenophobia and racism, misogyny and homophobia that are always somewhere in the air here.’ Sound familiar? No better way to gear up for the polls than a savage dose of rock-hard dystopia, eh? Ahem.
Etchells is perhaps best collaborative known for his innovative theatre work as part of Forced Entertainment, a Sheffield-based six-piece that makes rather unsettling and politicised art (they work across performance spaces and galleries as well as publishing text-based and photographic works and creating installation pieces, and once, a bus tour). Endland is an updated version of a story collection Etchells first released in 1999 (Endland Stories); both texts are equally and ruthlessly unsettling and provocative. The stories range from three or four pages to fifty-odd; while they vary in the degree of realism they espouse, they’re all foul-mouthed, syntactically and grammatically experimental, and savagely critical of, oh, the hegemony of capitalism and neoliberal ideology; they’re also very funny and painfully sad. Endland/England is a country asset-stripped and rotting/burning/flooding; its citizens are enslaved by shit telly and consumerism; it’s overseen by a petty mob of gods: Zeus, Artemis and the likes, but also Risotto, Tesco, Dalek, Meth Head, HiFi, Apollo 12, Porridge – well, you get the vibe. Etchells’ anti-heroes are homeless, they’re on zero-hours contracts, they’re ignored (at best) and hounded (at worst) by the police and the government – they’re victims of racism and sexism and any other ism you might care to mention. This is not a book supportive of the status quo. While Etchells’ stories are surreal, dealing in bleak fantasy and drug-addled fairy-tales, they’re suffused in the present moment: we’ve got Teresa May’s Hostile Environment, we’ve got a shout-out to Trump, not to mention manspreading and Stormzy. The original stories describe a country/place/world in thrall to the forces of global capital, and worse off for it; the newer pieces latch onto the various ways in which contemporary Britain has, horribly, enacted Etchell’s vision: hello, Brexit. Most of the pieces follow a single character, generally as their lives spiral from bloody awful to the bottom of a cliff; as the book progresses, though, there’s a sense of expansion, the narrator taking a wider view of the perils and woes and evils of contemporary-ish Endland: in the longest story, ‘For the Avoidance of Doubt’, an Olympian child-god (‘Valuation or Valiant’) topples to earth, takes on the role of a Syrian refugee sold into child labour in Blackpool, and gets trapped inside a burning, at which point all the deities piled in and ‘warred with Endland on account of this whole story’. Decode that, if you will.
This is Jonathan Swift meets George Saunders (think ‘Adams’) crossed with Irvine Welsh and Rachel Kushner: it’s damning social commentary dressed up in Bottom-esque humour. It’s a compelling and massively entertaining read, but it’s also an incredibly difficult read, because for all its bizarre extravagancies, it’s only ever a couple of details away from a DWP case-study. As gripping and funny as it is, it’s taken me weeks to finish, because the world it holds up to scrutiny is a world that’s being incubated by some of the politicians name-checked in its pages. Like all the best satire, it’s only a page-breadth from reality. And here’s Etchells, two days ago, on Twitter: ‘Endland is just about ready for the polls.’
Any Cop?: Providing you’re of the leftish persuasion and you like your humour dark, this is top-notch political satire. Alternatively, if humour’s not your bag – and should Mr. de Pfeffel Johnson clamber out of his fridge and crawl back into No. 10 – wait a few months and this’ll read like a straight-up documentary.