Patrick Langley’s Arkady is the story of two brothers, Jackson and Frank, who are drifting.
They explore the city, a not-quite-London of abandoned offices, growing tent camps and guarded compounds. Then they take to the water in a reclaimed boat – the titular Arkady – in search of something else: a community, or a way of life.
This is a strange narrative, enriched by a poetic style of prose which gives as much time to observational detail as it does to characters and events. It is set against a backdrop of upheaval and polarisation: families are being moved out of homes, authorities are cracking down on protests, luxury flats in shiny towers are multiplying on the skyline.
At its core are the two brothers. Jackson, the oldest, is wilful, introspective; goes off alone on unknown quests. At times he can prove a less than convincing figure, especially when he is citing Foucault as a teenager. But he works. He is also a balance to Frank, who is straightforward, creative, and always trusting of his big brother’s strange plans.
The narrative comes in snapshots. We see the boys in adolescence living with Leonard, a relative or guardian, then as young adults contriving ways to survive in the city. We follow them all the way to the Red Citadel, a commune of people holding out against what seems to be the systematic removal of the poor.
Each chapter has the tone of a short story. It is deliberately elliptic, never quite giving us enough information about what is going on in the world of Arkady, nor many clues about what exactly has happened to leave the brothers adrift with no parents.
Some readers will be happy enough with this. Others – myself included – will at times find it frustrating. I confess I was too distracted trying to figure out some of the details that I could not fully enjoy the writing.
Nevertheless, Arkady taps into a contemporary taste for the speculative. It seems there has been an explosion of books set in dystopias and disaster zones. The best of these use catastrophised worlds as a mirror for the problems we are facing in our own politics and culture.
Langley achieves this by taking all the ugliness of urban living and cranking them up a notch: homelessness, police brutality, privatisation. You can hear the echoes of real events – the financial crisis, the London riots – haunting the pages.
But Arkady’s politics are not always clear. The brothers at its core are ambiguous, never quite siding with anyone but each other. Their boat sets them apart from the city which no longer welcomes them, but it also allows them to keep their distance from the Citadel. They are frustrated by the commune where everybody has different solutions to the crisis.
This is a bleak assessment of Britain’s ruptured social fabric, yet it is also a controlled, focused look at our closest relationships; the people we would die – or kill – for.
It is worth comparing Arkady to Megan Hunter’s 2017 novel The End We Start From. In both, London is struck by changes which feel cataclysmic without quite reaching full apocalypse. They hover around the edges of disasters we have seen happen in real life, flooding and rioting. But Hunter and Langley both shun the detailed worldbuilding of thriller-style speculative fiction. Instead they adopt a poetic approach which leaves more out than it keeps in.
We also get the sense in these two novels that the protagonists are not fully engaged with what is going on around them. Instead, they revert to a focus on insular relationships. Hunter’s topic is the bond between a mother and child, while Langley paints a careful picture of brotherly companionship. Both also give their characters a sliver of optimism at the end, hinting that life can be rebuilt when we hold on to those who are important to us in the face of disaster.
In a world where the news cycle can make us feel like every day is the end of the world, I think there is plenty of room for hopeful, poetic reckonings with dystopia like these.
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