The Night of the Long Goodbyes, Erik Martiny, River Boat Books, 2020, 282pp, $17.95 (paperback)
Erik Martiny’s The Night of the Long Goodbyes is a hugely enjoyable and hugely disturbing novel. It is multi-faceted, ambitious, and very successful. Set sometime in the mid-twenty-first century, it begins as a political and social dystopia. (Here, on the margin, let me note that one of the strengths of Martiny’s novel is that he introduces the horrid new technologies of the future in an economical and suggestive manner.) Twenty to thirty years after Brexit, a reactionary English government, authoritarian and racist, does the kind of awful things one would expect such a government to do, particularly to ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ community. As if that was not enough, the world of the novel is beset by the apocalypse. Radical climate change has made the air difficult to breathe and pandemics sweep not just Britain, but the globe – as pandemics do – substantially impoverishing the lives of many.
And then comes the Blue. I cannot but introduce a spoiler here, for otherwise my comments make no sense. The Blue falls everywhere, blue snow and yet not snow since it does not melt, modelling clay and yet not modelling clay either. Initially greeted with fascination and some excitement, it shortly hardens to an impermeable shell, killing plant and animal life, and causing the deaths of billions of people. An unremittingly blue carapace covers the land.
Here the novel morphs into a third kind of narrative. The narrator and central character (his name is Kvist but we do not learn this until much later) has, like many, become obsessed with the Blue. He sets out on a difficult journey around a world of hardened and twisted surfaces, of indestructible smalt and sinter, in order to document and understand the Blue. What follows makes up the largest part of the text and is a cross between a quest narrative and a picaresque in which our less than noble, thoroughly unfit knight travels through post-apocalyptic landscapes, encountering persons and lives altered by the monstrous and complex visitation. One of the most memorable encounters (and, I believe, Martiny’s only explicit nod to the danse macabre that is British politics in 2019) is with the sexual, amorphous, slug-like, and slimy Bora Johnson, Lord Mayor of Brexishire. The encounter between the narrator and the vile Bora Johnson will raise the eyebrows of even the most hardened critics of the present Prime Minister (but can be defended as little more than a fair comment). The reader will be delighted and shocked by the vagaries of the unfortunate Kvist’s journey. It is, as they say, one exciting ride.
The novel is also a disquisition on the malleability of the mind and the body, and their interrelation. Transformations are part of the story’s substance. At one point, surrounded by persons with animal attributes (frequently piggy ones), Kvist notes that ‘The world started to resemble scenes out of Hieronymous Bosch paintings.’ Characters’ minds undergo equally abrupt or slow metamorphoses: confused, apathetic, agitated, forgetting, above all forgetting.
In addition, The Night of the Long Goodbyes is also a text deeply aware of its own status as a fiction, full of entertaining and deadly serious metafictional riffs, imbued with a traditional intertextuality and allusions to folk tale, legend, myth, late-twentieth-century Anglo magic realism and its patron saint, the great Angela Carter. Witnessing Martiny pull these metafictional firework displays – which are never otiose – is one of the exciting aspects of the novel. Above all, the novel is to be admired for the way that, beyond genre and theme, it takes the imagination for a wild dance, developing its original premises in highly inventive and weirdly logical ways.
I am not sure whether I have sufficiently indicated what a funny novel this is. The references in the text to Flann O’Brien’s work confirm its comic intent. The humour is, to say the least, disturbing and dark, but it is a macabrely funny piece. The novel’s other virtues include the way in which it makes current nightmares vivid and concrete, and its legitimate contempt for wicked authority and power. Its focus on endless physical and mental metamorphoses, the loss of bodily and psychological integrities, and its concern with the degeneration of memory strike chords of recognition in many readers. Ultimately, one of the novel’s greatest strengths is its refusal to limit the possible meanings of the Blue. A metaphor for careless political recidivism? The consequence of human folly? The externalization of a malignity within us? The power of history and moral corruption to transform a landscape? Kvist speculates but rightly refuses to be tied down. The Blue is what you make of it – but it’s not good, and it’s coming. Maybe. Perhaps this fine novel will make somebody see sense.
Review by David Malcolm
The Night of the Long Goodbyes by Erik Martiny is scheduled to be released May 29, 2020. To pre-order, visit River Boat Books.
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