Before writing some of the most groundbreaking novels of her generation, Margaret Atwood published several excellent volumes of poetry. Cervantes wrote a considerable number of sonnets before starting on the unprecedented marvels of “Don Quixote.” Likewise for Jorge Luis Borges, James Joyce and other influential innovators of modern fiction as a literary form.
The prose writer who comes from poetry knows the dramatic potential of setting up a word pattern and then breaking it. Poems and novels are both based on patterns, notes Eileen Myles, whose extraordinary, genre-defiant books have revealed what a writer can achieve when brave enough to disregard categorical expectations altogether.
Recently, there has been something of an explosion in acclaimed works of prose from writers who first published as poets. In nonfiction, Maggie Nelson, Kevin Young, Eula Biss, Tracy K. Smith and Sarah Manguso. In recent fiction, Michael Ondaatje, Ben Lerner, Lucy Ives, Garth Greenwell, Alejandro Zambra, Max Porter and now the accomplished British poet Luke Kennard with an inventive first novel, “The Transition.”
Set in a near future with ever more concentrated wealth for those at the top of the corporate pyramid and bewildering living costs and debt for everyone else, “The Transition” is bleak but prescient. Kennard’s central character, Karl — like the male protagonists in Lerner’s “Leaving Atocha Station” and Porter’s “Grief Is the Thing With Feathers” — has an expertise in poetry. For his master’s in English, Karl focused on the Metaphysical Poets. His wife, Genevieve, is a schoolteacher who keeps her manic tendencies in check with pills from a physician named Dr. Blend. Between them, they can barely afford shared quarters with other thirtysomethings, all of them considering what further moral or professional compromise to make in order to be solvent enough someday to consider having a child, or at least a bathroom of their own.
In the opening pages, Karl has already resigned himself to earning a living by writing phony consumer reviews and “bespoke” essays for wealthy college students. But as his debt mounts, and his sense of panic along with it, he agrees to take part in a credit-card skimming scheme, which soon lands him and Genevieve in a creepy prison alternative for minor criminals called the Transition.
At the orientation, they discover all the participants are heterosexual couples. Is one of the Transition’s unspoken aims to break up potential procreators as a method to reduce overpopulation? Possibly, though clarifying the Transition’s true intentions is not the aim of the novel so much as exploring the psychic fallout from being beholden to the whims of a faceless corporation.
Above all, it is a novel about cynicism and sadness. As with the melancholy protagonists in Lerner’s and Porter’s novels, immersion in poetry may increase one’s capacity for eloquence but not necessarily for self-knowledge. Karl is far more comfortable analyzing his wife’s mental state than questioning his own. His growing estrangement from Genevieve feeds his panic that the “rescue” program they’ve entered may not only end their marriage but entrap them both for the rest of their lives.
The growing paranoia and destabilizing sense of strangeness in “The Transition” brings to mind the symbol-rich fictional worlds of the late poet-novelist Denis Johnson. Like Johnson, Kennard escalates the strangeness with the oddness of his comparisons. A notary public’s suit has a “distinctly sheepy smell.” The blister packs of a wife’s pills look like “buttons on the console of a spaceship.” When his wife seems unhappy, Karl finds himself taking on the grating voice of “the jolly pastor addressing his listless congregation.”
As in the masterful stories of Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son,” right when a plot question in “The Transition” seems on the verge of resolution, Kennard abruptly subverts expectations with a change of scene or a particularly dark and surprising metaphor. One scene concludes with Karl asking a friend for advice on leaving the Transition. The friend recommends that he be quietly but intentionally destructive, to see himself “as a virus.”
Kennard writes about the allure of quiet, virus-like resistance to literary convention in his book of prose poems published last year, “Cain.” “Just when the action is coming to a head, attempt to pull off something formally innovative” one poem declares. That desire to innovate in both content and form and “pull off something” rather than abide by the rule book for fiction fuels many of the excellent subtle acts of disobedience throughout the novel.
Even the metafictional threads embedded in “The Transition” resist delivering the revelations one expects from invented texts woven into a novel. A rumored book called “The Trapeze” only exists in bits from forgers if it is not a hoax altogether. Parables excerpted from the Transition’s Bible-thick “Mentor’s Edition” fail to deliver any kind of concluding principle, ending instead with some delightfully odd, vivid moments reminiscent of the visual parables in a Wes Anderson film. One ends with a funeral for a child’s stuffed bear “lying, face up, on a cardboard altar.” The father asks why the child thinks the bear is dead, after which the parable concludes:
Just look at him, my son maintained.
We buried the bear.
How this bear burial connects to the mentors in the Transition is left open to the reader.
Like all participants in the program, Karl and his wife must live in the household of previous participants who succeeded in the system, “mentors” who can serve as guides to the kind of corporate compliance that Karl and Genevieve are eventually supposed to accept as the only viable form of adulthood.
From the start, it’s clear that the question of compliance will be what divides Karl and his wife, as it has many young couples pressured into the Transition before them. Which of the two ends up delirious and prostrate on a road is no surprise, but the disturbing way Kennard conveys the denouement in the soulless language of a generic corporate memo is formally daring, and far more chilling than if it were delivered in a straightforward scene.
What is lamentably conventional about the novel’s conclusion, however, is the way it ultimately reinforces its male protagonist’s belief that he knows more about his female partner’s well-being than she does. With so many excellently executed subversions of expectations, this was a disappointment as in the rest of the novel, Kennard deftly questions the dynamics of heterosexual marriage. High at a party, he tells a young woman with curiously white hair that he doesn’t “see himself as angry.” The woman’s response is to ask if he sees himself as a man. “You should be especially watchful,” she warns.
The novel’s conclusion does respond artfully to its ongoing questioning of corporate culture and unchecked capitalism. Toward the end of the book, Karl’s acerbic mentor Janna gives her diagnosis of what is holding Karl back from thriving in the Transition. “You feel ashamed all the time,” she tells him, “you go around in a cloud of shame.” Janna’s assumption that shamelessness is essential to financial success is creepily in sync with the strategy of the current president of the United States. Why seek a deeper meaning that might leave a person paralyzed with sorrow and guilt when there are so many financial awards for being shallow and shameless?
With “The Transition,” Kennard, like so many poets reinvigorating the expectations of what a work of prose can do, makes a case for resisting narrative conventions as a way to infuse a book with a feverish vitality that can feel a bit like succumbing to a virus during which you keep waking uneasy, uncertain where your current condition may lead.
Novey is the author of the novel “Ways to Disappear.” Her second, “Those Who Knew,” is forthcoming in fall 2018.