There is something deeply disturbing about the ongoing rehabilitation of the Reagan-Thatcher years. The right-wing radicals of the 1980s now smile down on us, implausibly, as kindly beacons of moderation and benevolent parental authority. What gives? In part, it’s a sliding scale: As brutal and violent as those regimes were, it only takes some airbrushing — and not a little wishful thinking — to make them look positively cozy next to the terrors of today. We all know the obscene alchemy of which nostalgia is capable. But the difference between Maggie and Ronnie and the parents that Philip Larkin so scabrously eulogized in “This Be the Verse” is that … well, these guys did mean to fuck us up. “Us” being the 99%, as we later came to be known.
It’s not just that today’s pundits smooth over the violence and complexity of those years: that dismal transition from 1970s stagflation to 1980s neoliberalism, fueled as much by postcolonial denial as by privatization. It’s more sinister than that. It’s as if now — in an age of planetary collapse, casually renewed talk of nuclear holocaust and nakedly racist populism — we’re being asked to believe that all that’s really happening is a debate over supply-side economics. It’s as if we’re being asked to imagine that we are simply reenacting a sacred ritual whose transcendent truth was revealed back when the 1970s yielded to the 1980s, as Thatcher and Reagan took over. And, predictably, it’s as if large parts of the left fall back on that old script as well — as if their most pressing problem to resolve was the one that last seemed fresh 40-odd years ago: whether class is the only thing that really matters, and whether identity politics is just an unwitting extension of lifestyle consumerism.
One begins to suspect that satire has now actually become the only news you can trust (prime exhibit: The Onion having to defend itself in court). Likewise, fiction may be our best guide to the matrix of our times. Because it’s certainly true that we’re still living with the 1970s and the 1980s. It’s just that much of what might still matter to us about that period lives in the rapidly receding memories and archives of the ones who were there: under the radar, between the cracks. Here, then, is an opening for a rather different kind of alchemy: the kind that carefully gathers the unused, unexpectedly potent residues left lying around when the lab exploded.
Koushik Banerjea’s searing, absorbing new novel “Category Unknown” takes up this task. Part autopsy, part elegy, its wager is that, by taking the reader back through the human wreckage of the neoliberal revolution, some transformation of those remains, some redemption of that history might still be possible.
Banerjea’s key protagonist is D, whose lifelong career of “accommodation[s] with the new” begins with the “little stylistic tweak” that reduces his given name to a single, emblematic letter. “Category Unknown” opens at the early ’90s turning point when D loses both his fancy finance job and, eventually, because he can’t bear to tell her, his wife. The novel then jumps back to the late ’70s and early ’80s in southeast London, the world in which D — who is white — and his Black schoolyard contemporary Conrad come of age.
In the chapters that follow, Banerjea introduces us to a pair of female protagonists as well, each hailing from rather different circumstances, both destined for fateful intersections with D. There’s Roxy (given name Rukhini), the self-deracinating daughter of a fiercely aspirational middle-class South Asian family. Roxy longs for the day when her family will “finally realize that as much as pakoras and accountancy exams, it was bigotry that really held them together.” But Roxy carries the burden, too, of her mother’s “gift to her daughter, a permanent sense of unease around her own people.” And there’s Laura, a Spanish exchange student, who enters into a complex and ultimately deadly set of transactions with the lingering, sickly memory of General Franco’s fascist regime by seducing El Profesor, an aging historian, “increasingly desperate, an aristocrat with no castle, reduced to small talk with family ghosts.” Pretty much every character in “Category Unknown” ends up having seen more than they care to say. More than one of them is undone by what they are made to carry. But Laura is a survivor; doing what she must to do what she can, she turns out to be carrying the future.
Roxy and Laura’s storylines broaden the novel’s narrative horizons, not least by multiplying its perspectives on the entanglement of gender, sex, class, self and survival. But the beating heart of the book remains south-of-the-river London during that uneasy time when the increasingly threadbare social liberalism of the postwar years was giving way to the bracing brutalities of neoliberalism. The old certainties are falling away and something more steely, something at once more precarious and more open-ended, is emerging. And it is in and through this space of the new, this ambiguous moment of threat and opportunity, that Banerjea’s characters have to find their way.
I was well into reading “Category Unknown” when something unsettling happened. At first I wasn’t quite sure what it was. Something like the direction of the light shifting or a slight rotation of the ground beneath my feet. As soon as I figured it out, though, it was obvious: Suddenly, we were in the first person.
Actually, that’s probably debatable. The person bit, that is. What happens on page 127 of the novel is that we are abruptly subjected to the direct address of a shambling, stinking, ranting wreck of a man, a wholly non compos mentis version of D. Here he is, or what’s left of him, washed up on the indifferent shores of the noughties financial crisis: “What the hell happened? How did I end up here? Why is there sawdust in my hair?” Indeed. It’s characteristic of Banerjea’s sly way with his characters that D should show up in defiant, if disoriented, first person just as he’s disintegrating as a person. D is, at this point, far gone in “the land of no quick fix.” It has been a good decade and a half since he lost his job, having been pumped and dumped by a deregulated market that first seized on his instinct for paring things down to their most basic equations and then decided that he, too, like so many others, was surplus to requirements.
Ostensibly, Banerjea is concerned with the choice between the “tribalism” of identity politics (bad) and the canny improvisations of modernism (good). As he reflects in a recent essay, both left and right are today soliciting — or browbeating — us with pious assertions of authentic identity. And “faced with that, perhaps refusing to be co-opted can start to take on the trappings of a revolutionary act.” There’s nothing new about the identity game, Banerjea notes; it’s as old as empire. But in the aftermath of Thatcherism, it was laundered and rebranded as multiculturalism. Or, rather, the “mongrel refuge” of London became a settled selection of identities, ready to be claimed and weaponized.
The pitch on the back of “Category Unknown” concludes: “At the book’s core is the simple premise — when life is precarious, perhaps the greatest freedom of all resides in refusing to be stereotyped.” But in fact the world that Banerjea gives us is rather more complicated than that premise would imply. For one thing, the freedom on offer here is as likely to lead to doom as it is to transcendence.
Consider D’s ostensibly simple decision to be known only by an initial. The gesture transforms the place that he is in and the ways in which he can inhabit it. D’s act of subtraction, of tactical austerity, flies in the face of the identitarian dress-up that the other kids at his school, white as much as Black, seem to favor. It’s not that D doesn’t feel the odd pang of longing for something more given. He “envied the blacks what he saw as their sense of kinship, how they felt connected to distant events just by virtue of being black.” But in the end, to D, it all just feels unearned and opportunistic, puffed up and panicked: scared little kids affecting world-weary mannerisms. Whether it’s the apprentice skinheads “imitating a bunch of Dickensian glue-sniffers” or “the bone idle fakery of those picky locks and that cartoon Rasta style and patter” sported by Conrad and his pals, the economy of stances on offer in the schoolyard seems already stuck in the same brittle stagflation as every other market in those years: big gestures barely covering up the abyss. D’s desire moves in the opposite direction:
D felt virtually no connection to anyone around him, less still because of a pigment issue. On the contrary, he’d been trying to avoid tribal affiliation for about as long as his brother had been hoisting sportswear … The way he viewed it, no useful purpose was served by the appeal to some primal longing he just didn’t harbour. Better to trim the fat — Denis to D — and then just sit out the tribal disturbances under the cloak of anonymity.
Of course, there’s a thin line between flying under the radar and falling between the cracks. Both D and Conrad turn out to be sharp sparks, too clever by half for the “spit-snarl fuckeries of the locals.” Conrad is able, for a while, to play into the right-on dreams of the “hairies,” middle-class teachers with condescending fixations on inner-city realness. But the more Conrad performs the realness that his teachers desire, the more he is laughing up his sleeve: “it was funny really, the more he pushed it with the adopted mannerisms, the style and patter, the garishly coloured romper suit, the less people called him out on any of it. Typical, he thought. All complete horseshit, and now they’re listening.”
Still, Conrad also quickly realizes that this is precisely the role the local police expect him to play. And while the street persona certainly doesn’t hurt his chances with the girls, it also boxes him up emotionally, leaving him unable to express care and attention at a moment when it might have saved a life. His Jamaican grandmother tries her fierce and level best to instill in him an aspirational urge to better himself through education. But Conrad is all front and fragile face, haunted to the point of disintegration by a world that, in turn, will see in him only “a rumour, another high-rise statistic, destined for nothing much beyond the expected dysfunctions.”
For D, by contrast, it’s all about paring things down, finding the hidden geometry behind all the flexing and preening: “work the angles, stay out of trouble. Under the radar, behind the initial, the hidden line between the warring factions of the isosceles.” Conrad, like D, has a head for numbers. And, like D, he spends much of his time in school pretending to be thick. But it’s D who intuits which way the gentrifying wind is blowing, as “numbers and projections fell like a shroud on the whole area.” It’s D who senses that survival and even flourishing may depend more on nimble negotiation than on authenticity: “the personal equation between risk and profit and what he could now see was a finely balanced juggling act. Walk the wrong side of that line and a shakedown was headed your way. But get it right, have a commodity worth trading, and the benefits were obvious.” The key point is never to confuse taste with identity and never to lay it on too thick: “No waste, a minimum of fuss, but the point still being made, and made forcefully, that a phoenix had risen from the ashes.”
Finding his way, against all odds, to university at the height of Thatcherism, D, the self-styled “working-class charlatan,” rubs up against the “dilettante Byronic socialist” crowd. He understands that everyone there is playing a game of cultural drag: “Boldness its own aphrodisiac, class just something else to be pimped out for carnal exchange,” “glottal stops suddenly all the rage for well-spoken boys and girls.” Tellingly, D reserves some grudging respect for his sexual rival Ravi, who never pretends to be anything other than a tactically tasteful chancer: “This bastard was just like [D] really, no tribal affiliations, none of that nonsense holding him back, just a clear sense of style and marketing and its pay-off in sex.”
By contrast, D’s contempt for Conrad’s get-up is limitless, especially once he discovers, by helping Conrad’s nan with her groceries, the kind of home in which he lives: “You’re even more bogus than me,” D just about stops himself from spitting at Conrad. “I’m just pretending to be a product of the neighbourhood, the better to remain inconspicuous for as long as I have to be here. Just biding my time is all. But you, you’re far worse. Not only are you a fake Rasta, but you’re middle class. At least I’m only trying to slip under the radar of other people, but you, you’re hiding from yourself.” (One of Banerjea’s darkest jokes is that the merciless jinn who drives Conrad to distraction in his dreams is himself a kind of cut-price Orientalist impersonator, sarcastically apologizing for not appearing in a more culturally appropriate form.)
D rises and falls along with the Thatcherite ideology of the “classless society.” His arc, like that of his time, moves from deregulation to implosion. Having found his form as an opportunity diviner in an age of deregulation, he lands up jobless in a ’90s Britain where the bitter taste of the old austerity is only very superficially masked by a spoonful of multiculturalism, the better to make New Labour-style “Cool Britannia” feel like something other than recycled imperial nostalgia. D, the great modernist, reflects that the yuppie stylings never did sit quite right. He may have made it for a while as a market-mover and rainmaker, but in the end something more visceral was at play: “Tried it, but it just hadn’t felt right or comfortable, the posture borrowed from some other projection of himself: office hologram, social butterfly, the D that never was, a bit of a beast under all those mannerisms.” And yet he can’t admit that it’s over, can’t stop falling back on old habits.
By the time D speaks to us in the first person, it’s 2008 and everything is collapsing. The old Hayekian discipline that served him so well has turned into a rotting mystery religion, another “Mithraic temple, subsiding once more under the weight of its own lies.” Banerjea has written that “Category Unknown” was in part triggered by the twin 2016 shocks of Trumpism and Brexit, and his sense that whatever appeared novel about that moment was only the mainstreaming of energies that had been present and incorrect all along. “Atavism,” he writes in an essay, “the tribal instinct, has always been with us. But how to respond when it resurfaces in peculiarly unkempt, intolerant form, and in societies which had evidently been kidding themselves all along that they’d consigned this sort of thing to a distant past?”
As ever, Banerjea writes with loving attention to period detail and local language. But his novel is less nostalgic than it is an exercise in forensic archaeology. Whoever insists that it was better back in the day, Banerjea observes, is generally repressing some hideous violence or other. And this is one of the messages of “Category Unknown”: Let’s not waste our time mourning a “social conscience” that was only ever skin deep and compromised through and through by its own equally shallow narcissism. Take the “hairies” in charge of educating D, Conrad and their contemporaries. These ’70s hippie teacher types come in for some of Banerjea’s most implacable scorn, both because of the dubious desires that drive their attachment to inner-city authenticity and because of the fundamental uselessness of their do-gooder commitments:
[T]he hairies were always too busy driving away from the scene of the crime to notice that in this place, as opposed to wherever it was they were driving back to, it was all about setting the tone. Get it right, and peace might even break out. On the other hand, keep mentioning words like ‘harassment’ and ‘prejudice,’ and it’d be like handing the local pyro the nearest box of matches.
More than that, their “compassionate” approach to education completely fails to prepare students for life where they live. Conrad himself lays the blame for his foolish love of jawing at the law on “the hopelessly permissive regime at his school, where the habit had been formed, for leaving him so ill-equipped to cope with the routine racism of a police stop-and-search in the world beyond the gates.”
And yet for Banerjea the past, this past, is an archive of potentialities, many of them as yet unrealized. At one level, the world of D’s school years is the training ground for the brutalities and vanities of our own time. But, at another level, it is also a time and a place at which other histories of collective self-making had not yet been forgotten, even as new kinds of opportunities, shaky to be sure, were opening up: “Here was ambition understood by ordinary kids as its own portal to experience, though always representing something of a leap in the dark.” “Category Unknown” is a lament for a form of individuality that didn’t come pre-packaged as a lifestyle. A self-determination drawing instead, as Banerjea has written, on a living urban archive made of
humour and no little style. How you carried yourself, the music you listened to, your sporting prowess. The list goes on. And it seems notable now that in this pre-social media yesteryear there was still a commons with the space to breathe and develop away from the eviscerating scrutiny of the non-stop commentariat. People fought and loved and thrived, just as they have always done, but a truer sense of the quotidian progress made could be more readily gauged in the unruly commons of nighttime, of sound systems, raves, football terraces. And in those places, the indices were often stylistic. … Where you were really from was about attention to detail.
Alienate yourself from that archive of possibilities, Banerjea implies, and you start to dream pure and deadly categories. Lest this all sound too solemn (and “Category Unknown” is, among other things, a very funny book), I think the writer China Bialos gets it just about right when she suggests that Banerjea’s affections rest with a time and place where “everyone largely talked nonsense.”
So, again: “What the hell happened? How did I end up here? Why is there sawdust in my hair?” By the time D speaks these words, in the startling first-time first person, the stakes of talking nonsense would seem, to say the very least, to have changed.
But really, who’s talking here? Who’s been talking this whole time? Up to the moment in which D — or, rather, the remains of someone who once styled himself as such — addresses us directly, we’ve been surfing the waves of Banerjea’s highly fluid free indirect voice. Ostensibly staging a series of third-person narrations, Banerjea gives us seemingly immediate access to the thoughts and impulses of each of his four protagonists (“He remembered feeling particularly aggrieved that day”), not least their often scathing judgments of each other. The cumulative effect is of an ambiguous ventriloquation — is Banerjea voicing his characters or are they voicing him? — punctuated by bursts of bracing estrangement. It’s not exactly Brechtian, since Banerjea’s mission is neither didactic nor, in any conventional sense, revolutionary. The feeling is of being lulled into identification with the narrator’s voice, only to find oneself confronting one’s own pious leanings when that narrator’s voice turns out to have merged with that of one of his characters. So, for instance, I found myself viscerally recoiling from some of D’s more vitriolic takes on Conrad and then, a few pages later, soothed in a no-less-unthinking way by a passage, ostensibly in the all-seeing voice of the narrator, that contextualizes Conrad’s more regrettable moments in the expected, empathetic ways — broken home, racism, police harassment and so on. (No less symptomatic was, of course, my total lack of inner struggle when it came to D’s scorn for his white playground tormentors.)
There are certainly moments when D seems directly to be channeling the contempt in which Banerjea avowedly holds all the pieties that sustain identity politics, “tribalisms” old and new. The storyline of Laura, the Spanish student, allows Banerjea to suggest a dismal sentimental equivalence between identitarian claims on both the left and the right. As he observes in an essay, “no one faction has a monopoly on this guttural default. It’s a pincer movement from both Right and Left, and faced with that, perhaps refusing to be co-opted can start to take on the trappings of a revolutionary act.” But Banerjea’s real coup is to have developed a narrative voice at once so viscerally present and so nimbly elusive as to its identifications that it repeatedly seduces the reader into (what turn out to be) uncomfortable moments of stance-taking and self-reckoning. I would wager, based on my own experience, that many readers are likely to find themselves repeatedly face-to-face with their own dearly-held habits of moral indignation.
Still, no one’s stance-taking and self-reckoning are as uncomfortable — or as visceral — as D’s. It’s as if D is able to speak only in the first person once he has had to let go of everything else, once he really has been pared down, once it’s no longer social status but his very status as a person that’s in question. By now, he has both flown under the radar and fallen between the cracks. The boy who once preferred to keep his own counsel will no longer shut up: “The pause button’s a bit fucked these days.” Even at the brink of total dissolution, D metaphorizes his own decomposition in terms of the thrills and spills of casino capitalism: “My bones are leaky, and my threads are blending with the weeds. A hostile merger.” I thought here of Hannah Arendt’s insight that once human beings have been deprived of everything extra, once they have been reduced to their bare biological being, human beings as such suddenly appear as something less than human. D confronts a sniggering student outside the London School of Economics, a ’90s crucible of “the shadow and spit of the [Blairite] third way.” Satirizing the identitarian claim to untranslatable experience, the remains of D quip: “It’s an ontological thing, son, you wouldn’t understand.”
Even thinking of himself in the first person has, at this point, become difficult for D, since failure rivets him to the person he ended up pretending to be: “yesterday’s man, trapped in a speakeasy he could no longer afford.” Relief comes in the form of just a little bit of self-distancing, that dissociation that allows some minimal wiggle room between “I” and “me.” Notice the woozy/crafty shift of pronouns in the following passage: “Funnily enough, once I started thinking of myself at a remove, things began to get a little easier. He was still me, and I was definitely still him, but in the retelling a little gap had opened up, and that was all he needed really, to carry on.”
Ghosts pour out of that gap as well; returns of the Thatcherite repressed. D’s abjection is the foul specter of a collective indignity: “I am the stain on the surface, a public embarrassment.” But he is also something of a heretic prophet, channeling a nameless spirit:
For this soak, here and now, for me, myself and I, for the father, the son, and the other fella, it’s no use at all. We just want to shout, “We’ve seen things, my friend, things no mythopoet, or perhaps every mythopoet, should see. Fraud and ambition and hubris and greed.”
D has traveled a great distance since the days when he and Conrad met on the playground. But now the ghosts of everything that can’t be transformed have caught up with him as well.
D, the great tactician, reminds himself, in extremis, of the fundamental lesson that investment should, at all costs, not be confused with identity — the rookie mistake, yet constant existential hazard, of “failing to mind the gap.” What started with D as tactical subterfuge has morphed into dizzy dark farce: “It doesn’t bite. I just want to talk! Did I really just refer to myself as ‘it’? Surely not, but of late it’s so hard to tell.” D, once upon a time the “young man with a head full of numbers and a gift even back then for prediction,” has now realized, with a sickening lurch, that all along it was the market that was clairvoyant. Facing that kind of exposure, any sensible gambler will lunge for the refuge of plausible deniability: Me? Him? It? Us? “Why is it always the markets that get to speak? Why not the bulls or the bears? I don’t like the thought that the markets can see me, that they can tell me who’s who and what’s what, so when I get those feelings I let him take over again for a bit. It’s better that way. It’s what we do best. Maybe not lies, exactly, more like miniature dramas.”
There’s an echo in D’s self-suspension of the slippages that Banerjea’s free indirect voice has already set in motion among author, reader and characters. Perhaps there too — for reader as much as for author — it’s a question of plausible deniability, of the relief that dissociation can bring. Be that as it may, D finds himself face-to-face with the question of who or what, looking back, he had been: “The truth is, I never really found my role. For all the good it did me, I was the quiet one, slipping under the radar. The Category Unknown.” But the question is also who he may yet turn out to be, if something like a name and a home to wear it in may yet be granted him. Perhaps there is still a future in which saying “I” might stabilize a world. A movement from pared-down third person to tentatively inhabited first person — a passage from avoidance to mercy:
He shaved his own name to the bone just to be alone. And back then in that horrible classroom, doing that made him feel so free. Now, though, he wants those letters back, wants to forget about being alone. It’s true … I just want to stop hiding. I want my name back. I’m not him, and he’s not me. We don’t even get on.
By the end of “Category Unknown,” D is lying in a hospital bed, having barely survived a beating. His exhaustion is more than medical; it’s existential. He wants to weep for his restless life, for every time he has imagined himself to be on the brink of finding a way of working the angles that would make everything fall into place: “Always wanting something more, another equation, a different result.” Refusing identity, D has always supposed that the way to capitalize on the chances that life may bring relies not only on a “crude cost/benefit analysis” but, more subtly and more effectively, on “a certain economy of style”: the gesture, the juxtaposition, the quietly irrefutable statement. Fashions will change, fortunes will fail. But “if money came and went, then style, my friend, was permanent.” In exhausted retrospect, now he’s not so sure that something hasn’t been missing all along.
Ironically, it’s Roxy, the character driven by the most apparently superficial motives, who grasps what that something was. Her tragedy is that the realization also means that she must leave her marriage to D — a marriage that, until she realizes that he has been lying about losing his job, may not have been a grand passion but seemed to exemplify the pragmatics and adjustments of making do. With all her maneuvering to escape what she understands as the stain of her origins, Roxy is the one who recognizes, in a flash, the missing premise on which their lives had been built: “She assumed that he [D] of all people would understand, just as she did, the difference between a taste, a certain liking for particular foods or holiday destinations or perhaps stripped-wood floors and exposed brickwork, and a hunger, that keening need for life and dependency and the gorgeous unvarnished mess of unconditional love.”
Reading this passage, I found myself reminded of a song that, broadly speaking, belongs to the historical and ideological landscape of Banerjea’s novel but doesn’t appear in the carefully curated and annotated playlist that he appends: Pet Shop Boys’ “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money).” The lyrics satirically impersonate the shameless ambition of Thatcher’s Britain: “I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks/Let’s make lots of money.” But in a few of the formats in which the song was released, there are some additional lyrics, a plaintive, almost-whispered coda:
All the love that we had
And the love that we hide
Who will bury us
When we die?
Unexpectedly, brilliantly and utterly without sentimentality, “Category Unknown” may just, by the time it ends, have an answer to that question.
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