In Defence of Chris Morton’s English Slacker
The Guardian’s Sam Jordison reviewed English Slacker as part of the Not the Booker Prize process. Obviously, the author Chris Morton and I were hoping for a positive review, but it wasn’t to be. C’est la vie. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t respond to a negative review, but Sam Jordison, in his role as prosecutor, asked for a defence of English Slacker, so I thought that it would be most negligent of me not to do so.
Thank you for your review Sam, I thought that your parody of English Slacker was quite amusing, although obviously I very much disagree with your conclusions. I will use this blog post to present my own very different reading of English Slacker, which will go some way to explain why I nominated it for the Not the Booker Prize. This will, of course, be my own personal view of the novel, which readers are welcome to either accept or dismiss if they so choose. So @JohnSelfsAsylum, you can relax, as I’ve no intention of forcing my interpretation upon you or anyone else who has disliked English Slacker.
Thank you also Sam for highlighting the misspelling of ‘Marlboro’. However, it is just that – a mere spelling mistake. Admittedly, it’s quite an embarrassing one on both my and Chris’ part, since Marlboro is the biggest selling brand of cigarettes in the world. Then again, one could argue (with tongue firmly embedded in cheek) that this vindicates the policy of successive UK governments of restricting tobacco advertising, if some literary types can no longer spell their brand name. Although one could also playfully argue that it’s Philip Morris International who can’t spell, since they named this brand after the site of its original London factory: Great Marlborough Street. I’m in two minds as to whether I should correct this error in the book, since I don’t really want to give Marlboro any more free advertising than you’ve done in your review. Yet ‘Marlborough’ makes this brand sound too dignified, too Churchillian; I will correct the spelling as soon as possible in the e-book editions.
So Sam, I will award one gold star for the spotting of this elementary spelling mistake. However, if you can find me a full-length book that has absolutely no typos or inaccuracies in it, then I will give you ten gold stars. For I’m afraid, that no matter how hard we publishers try, we will never be able to remove all typos from a book. For instance, within this thread, I’ve noticed that @JulianGough writes “owch” instead of “ouch”:
This spelling of “owch” has also made it on to page 5 of ‘Jude in London’. Admittedly, “owch” is an alternative spelling of “ouch”, but it’s rather an archaic one, but I’m not going to dismiss ‘Jude in London’ without having read it in full (as @JulianGough seems all too ready to do with regards to English Slacker). In a similar light, my close reading of Zadie Smith’s ‘On Beauty’ upon publication revealed that the Haitian artist Hector Hyppolite’s painting ‘Maitresse Erzulie’ had been incorrectly ascribed to the similarly named (but unrelated) French philosopher Jean Hyppolite within the text, which is a little unfortunate since the painting played a pivotal role in the drama. Whatever its importance, this typo didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the text as a whole, or devalue its deserved win of the Orange Prize in my eyes (although other critics may choose to disagree with that!).
Although I did enjoy Sam’s review, I did think that it was a bit lazy (although the parody is quite clever, it wouldn’t be beyond the capabilities of one of Chambers’ friends to write something similar in one of their English exams). Admittedly, I have been known to spend a whole week performing a close reading of a literary text before reviewing it. Obviously, this is certainly not something that I would expect an average reader to do, but a paid reviewer ought to be far more meticulous than the casual reader. Then again, Sam’s disparaging of Chambers’ voice is fair enough, as it’s not to everyone’s taste. However, several contributors to this forum have come forward to say that they that think that Chambers’ dialect is authentic, and not the artificial construct that Sam believes it is.
It should go without saying that Chambers’ dialect certainly isn’t the most challenging in literature, since Irvine Welsh’s version of Scots language in ‘Trainspotting’ is far more testing, as it’s quite a startling contrast to Standard English text. However, like many novels written in dialect, ‘Trainspotting’ most definitely becomes more rewarding once you’ve fully immersed yourself into its voice. For most casual readers, Chambers’ dialect should also be far more accessible than that say, of Celie in ‘The Color Purple’.
Yet, as Sam relates, it’s not just Chambers’ dialect that will be a barrier to some readers feeling empathy for him, it’s also his mannerisms, as Chris Morton hasn’t perhaps made it easy for himself by casting Chambers in the role of the unreliable narrator throughout English Slacker. For instance, as early as page 63 (chapter 17), Chambers relates how Colin has stated that it isn’t easy being dead, yet later in the novel, Chambers is still chatting away to Colin and talking about him as if he’s still alive (much to Alex and Paul’s derision in chapter 38). Then there’s the question of Colin’s suicide note; at first, Chambers states that he wrote it, but then he contradicts this by saying that Colin may have slipped it into his pocket during their last meeting. So, Chris Morton’s utilisation of the unreliable narrator may well prove alienating for some readers, but for others, it’s indicative of Chambers’ very confused state of mind throughout much of English Slacker.
I have a great deal of affection for Chambers, because I can imagine how I’d feel if I were 18 (again), with the rush of hormones in my veins, looking forward to my last summer of freedom by partying with my mates (and finally asserting my manhood by hopefully copping off with some girls along the way), when lo and behold, my former best friend ruins it all by topping himself at this pivotal moment in both our lives. Thus English Slacker is concerned with how Chambers copes with the emotional trauma that visits him in the wake of his bereavement. No one seeks to ease Chambers’ suffering by offering him counselling, and, with all that testosterone pumping through his veins, asking for help is just something that doesn’t occur to Chambers, as this would offend his new-found masculine sensibilities, because for him (and many blokes) it doesn’t come naturally to him to express his emotions as Celie does in ‘The Color Purple’. Beyond this, the shock of Colin’s death means that he’s very much in denial about what has happened. However, Chambers is rather endearing in this regard, as rather than expressing his own trauma, he often chooses to empathise with the feelings of others instead, especially with regards to Charlotte in chapter 5, and Sereme in chapter 19, who are both treated somewhat insensitively by Graz.
It doesn’t help Chambers in his struggle to overcome his grief and his guilt that he’s not very articulate (not that the latter helped Hamlet much in his sufferings), especially as Chris Morton has chosen to represent him as an everyman, rather than someone blessed with verbal dexterity, as say the characters in Lars Iyer’s ‘Spurious’ are. Chambers’ narrative voice also dispenses with the various literary tricks that @JulianGough’s Jude deploys in his tale. However, that is not to say that English Slacker is bereft of such devices, just that Chris Morton is subtler in his approach. For instance, the dream that features Chambers wiping blood from the front of Alex and Paul’s van on top of the cliffs isn’t pointless (as Sam thinks it is), as it’s one of the first times that Chambers expresses guilt over Colin’s death. Since Chambers is fairly inarticulate, and averse to talking about his sufferings, one of the ways in his psyche deals with the shock of Colin’s death is by metaphorically symbolising his feelings via dreams and visions. (One extreme reading of English Slacker could be that Chambers did knock Colin off the cliff edge with Alex and Paul’s van.) However, in this instance, I believe that the van is not literally meant to represent an actual murder weapon, although like Lady Macbeth’s dagger, it does represent Chambers’ guilt over the death of another human being; even if Chambers didn’t murder Colin, it feels to him as if he did by not following Colin up on to the edge of the cliffs that fateful night.
Yet, if we cast our minds back to when we were 18, would any of us have been any more receptive than Chambers was when listening to philosophical bullshit from another 18-year-old after a shitty day at work? Especially when the said friend in question had a habit of coming out with such philosophical bullshit? Chambers also feels guilty for having allowed himself to gradually drift so far away from Colin as he strove to assert his own identity, rather than be forever labelled as being a joint entity with his former best friend. (Having written that, Chambers does seek refuge with Alex and Paul, an older version of the Chambers/Colin joint entity, who end up aimlessly wandering through the town.) With teenage hormones rushing through his veins also, Colin asserts his identity as well (and fears the loss of it) to such an extent that he discards his girlfriend and all his other friends and interests, all because he only feels ‘real’ when sitting on the cliff tops, listening to the sound of the sea and the wind. Such is Colin’s nihilistic vision, that he extinguishes his own life. Yet one might argue that since Colin is still a work in progress, since his body and mind haven’t yet reached maturity: he may well have had a more positive aspect on life a few months or years down the line. Indeed, despite your inexperience at this age, life does seems far more dramatic when you’re a teenager, and it’s Colin’s tragedy that he doesn’t get to realise this. (Sam did rather let his usually higher standards down, when, in a rather desperate effort to provoke discussion further, he wrote: “If your book had less to say about human tragedy than my turds, don’t put it forward for an award” – I’ve not had the pleasure of interviewing Sam’s turds, so I’m not quite sure what they have to say about life, but hopefully I’ve done enough thus far to persuade you that English Slacker does indeed have some insights into the human condition.)
The visions that Chambers experiences aren’t enough in themselves to assuage his feelings of shame for not having listened to Colin properly that night, and so, to make some sort of closure, Chambers demonstrates his emotional intelligence by reconstructing what Colin may have said by writing the contentious suicide note (chapter 47). If Chambers did truly write it, then not only does it display his empathy, but he can quite coherently express his thoughts in prose. However, as noted earlier, this is an instance where Chambers slips into ‘unreliable narrator’ mode, as he later states that Colin may also have written this note, and passed it to him surreptitiously before killing himself. This is an example of one of the alternative readings of English Slacker (with the most likely reading being that all the events are going on in Chambers’ drug-addled head), as is the possibility that Colin passed his suicide note to Chambers after death.
For instance, one could argue that the fizzing sound in Chambers’ head is just a by-product of smoking weed. However, there is another argument that this is an example of Colin’s haunting of Chambers, as during chapter 20, the same fizzing noise emanates from Colin’s mouth in a dream. In the suicide note, the sound of the wind and the sea at the top of Colin’s beloved cliffs are explicitly described as “fizzing”. So, when Chambers hears the fizzing noise in the book, this is possibly a sign that the spirit of Colin is looking over him at this time. Beyond the various flashbacks, Colin also manifests himself as a ghost from time to time. Yet he’s rather subtler than Marley, as he doesn’t resort to wearing heavy, clinking chains, but instead to perhaps signify his spiritual nature in chapter 10 by allowing a halo-like light to encircle his shaven head (it’s my belief that the cutting of his locks occurred during the autopsy). Nor is Colin as structured in his approach to haunting as Marley, as he doesn’t present Chambers with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Instead, he chooses to intervene in Chambers’ life when he sees fit. Not that his manifestations are without purpose though; as stated in his suicide note, Colin was very much afraid of losing his identity when he went out with Tanya. Thus he appears to interfere when Chambers becomes close to a girl, during those peculiar blackouts that Chambers suffers after both Charlotte and Holly have kissed him. Indeed, Chambers links these two events in chapter 28 and speculates that the reason Colin may have brought the blackouts about was because he was angry with Chambers for some reason, although Chambers doesn’t know why, because he hasn’t written\read the suicide note yet. (Although admittedly, these blackouts could just be a result of the drink and drugs that Chambers has taken).
In the vision that occurs during his blackout with Holly, Chambers sees himself metaphorically wrestling with Colin, but for some reason, Chambers lets Colin win, which is possibly another step in his recovery from the trauma caused by his bereavement. Once Chambers has recalled and understood Colin’s anguish, and has realised that he is blameless for Colin’s demise, Chambers can finally move on. Now that he’s no longer haunted by Colin’s death, this doesn’t mean to say that he has accepted Colin’s nihilistic vision, merely that it was true to his friend, and that it was this that led to his death. Although, I like the fact that, despite the fact that he’s gone through this major trauma, Chambers demonstrates that he still has a lot more growing up to do as he seriously contemplates what is obviously a scam advertisement in the newspaper, which offers to give him with all the skills he would need to become a Private Investigator!
Hopefully I have demonstrated to you that once you’ve pulled all the workings of English Slacker apart, Chris Morton’s novel is a lot more complex than it initially seems, and that it works on a variety of levels, as a literary novel should do. English Slacker also provides a great insight into the workings of the average English teenage male, albeit when beset by a major psychological struggle. I hereby now rest the case for the defence, as I’m afraid that I’m going to have to spend the rest of the day paying out royalties. However, I’ve also put together a reading guide to what I consider are the most salient parts of the novel online: