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Undiscovered Country

Alex Niven

Carl Neville
White Diaspora, 2003

Imagine, if you will, an alternate noughties in which Ian McEwan’s blitcon fiasco Saturday (2005) had actually been worth reading. Imagine if the British novel had flourished with a new sense of purpose in the decade of Blair and Bush—a repository for wit, subtlety, and anger in a world rapidly falling victim to smiley pathology and stereotyped infantilism. Imagine that, sometime in the early years of the decade, a novel had appeared that combined formal innovation with diagnosis and even prognosis for early-millennial culture, a book that jettisoned both pomo cleverness and staid realism while remaining grounded in the best novelistic traditions of sympathy and humanism.

In fact, such a work does not have to be imagined. White Diaspora, written by an English teacher from Barrow-in-Furness called Carl Neville, was made available as a free online download in 2003: an early experiment in e-publishing. At the time it was received with relatively little fanfare. However, largely because of its pioneering approach to distribution, White Diaspora has since become a cult internet classic, a work enjoyed by a burgeoning following of online admirers, many of whom were tipped off to the secret because of Neville’s work as a critic (Classless, a book of essays on recent British film, appeared last year via Zero Books, and his website The Impostume has been a longtime capstone of the blogosphere).

White Diaspora is the missing link between John Banville, David Foster Wallace, and Roberto Bola√±o, a late-postmodernist opus that turns angrily on postmodernism itself and seeks to bury it. Reflective of this, the novel employs an experimental form: the first half is printed entirely on the recto pages, the second entirely on the verso. (For those who have difficulty picturing this, it means that one reaches the final page of the first half and has to turn the book upside down, so that eventually the novel finishes back on the opposite side of page one.) In other hands this might have been a mere hollow technical exercise, but for Neville it becomes a way of figuring Joycean motifs of flow and human interrelatedness: the “dispersal” of the work’s title is paralleled by a conceit in which all the novel’s currents ultimately flow back to the source.

Buoyed along by surging, lyrical prose, the free-indirect narratives of a series of characters—residents of Barcelona on a single night around the turn of the millennium—are blended into one another. At times the disparate figures literally interact; a lapsed English writer bumps into two hedonistic tourists, an Irish and an American, at a bar in the Gothic quarter of the city, who in turn make fun of a pony-tailed surfer from New Zealand, who in turn rages at a Latin American waitress because his country is nowhere to be found on a globe lying on the bar (though, of course, Australia is). Meanwhile, a girl from Singapore-via-Los Angeles falls in love with an illegal Chilean immigrant, and an Anglo-American dotcom millionaire journeys to visit his dying father and long-lost brother, a plot strand that culminates in a spectacular Sturm und Drang finale.

However, White Diaspora is no sunny paean to the global village. An anti-globalisation protest and a terrorist attack round off the narrative as night turns into morning. And even prior to this, more often than they are intermingled the novel’s several characters remain distinct and isolated, while the possibility of real interconnection and solidarity hovers poetically out of reach. This overarching theme is brought to the fore in a breathtaking Faulknerian passage toward the end of the novel, one that showcases Neville’s prose skills operating at full pelt:

The life of the poor. The ambient edge of the endless human tide that’s already beginning to wash back on itself, drowning, rescuing itself endlessly, flowing out over centuries, across continents, to lap at their window, surging up below the window, keeping their awareness bobbing on the surface, tugging them gently along, almost under, almost all the nerves coated and restored but not quite, not quite the escape from sensation, from impression, from the pressure of the senses, not quite the true rest they need, scraping the sand banks, brain gently abrading on submerged stones, sharp barbs of coral snaring and snagging as they drift on the current. Just a good night’s, a full night’s sleep. That might help her to exhaustion, might give him that extra energy he needs to be productive. But their waterlogged limbs come morning, the heat and torpor of the days.

In combining bravura displays of style with assertive social commentary, White Diaspora is a sort of Bildungsroman for an entire culture, a testament to the continuing possibilities for fiction writing in the British Isles. This is novel that everybody should read, one that replaces relativism with political engagement, trickery with nuanced modernism, and cleverness with wisdom.

Alex Niven is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. Alex is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.