By Jonathan McCalmont
Hunters & Collectors — M. Suddain (Jonathan Cape)
Suddain’s second novel Hunters & Collectors is an intimidating object.
Published by Jonathan Cape, the book has a grey-blue cover so pale as to be almost powdery. Its elegantly minimalist cover features nothing except for a title, an author’s name, and what appears to be a single silver steak knife. Leaf through the book and you’ll find that some pages are nothing but dense text, while others contain drawings and yet others contain poems, quotations, and de-contextualised sentence fragments. Larger than a mass market paperback and just over 500-pages long, the book’s appearance whispers substance and seriousness in a way that recalls the subtle class theatrics of fine dining. Putting a spaceship on the cover of a book like Hunters & Collectors would ruin the cut of its suit, the seasoning of its soup, or the atmosphere of its dining area. This turns out to be something of an interesting choice as while the book’s physical appearance may speak of high-minded quality and literary refinement, the novel itself is about 500-pages of sustained tap-dancing silliness.
The book opens with a wild collage of different styles: Turn the page and you’ll encounter a letter written to an anonymous fan, turn another page and you’ll find a lengthy first-person account of a trip to a particular restaurant, turn yet another page and you’ll find either a selection of withering put downs, a description of someone’s luggage, or a list of improbably named eating establishments. Each of these vignettes is beautifully written and yet the context only becomes obvious after a few dozen pages. What we are reading are the notebooks of the most famous and feared restaurant critic in the galaxy.
I use the term ‘galaxy’ advisedly as while the book contains illustrated star-charts and makes occasional references to escape pods, the book’s setting could just as easily be a single planet or an entire galaxy. For example, this particular galaxy has both a wealthy but increasingly-unstable “West” and a fast-rising but politically-repressive “East”. There’s even talk of a ‘Middle’ and/or ‘Near-East’ but it’s never made clear whether these are literal compass points or a selection of loose cultural ‘themes’ based upon which terrestrial countries most closely resemble particular planets. Suddain continues to riff on this theme by blurring the line between talk of literal seafaring cruise-ships and luxury space cruisers that just happen to be spoken of using a metaphorical jargon inspired by traditional navies. The effect is both intensely destabilising and seemingly deliberate for reasons that become apparent later in the novel.
The book’s protagonist begins his career by posting anonymous restaurant reviews to the internet. Educated and seemingly wealthy, the protagonist spends his time touring the galaxy and eating in its better restaurants. At first, the protagonist rejects the label of ‘critic’ on the grounds that he would rather be seen as someone who exalts. However, once it becomes clear that people read him chiefly for his negative reviews, our protagonist settles into the role of critic. Once his following becomes so large that restauranteurs start trying to have him killed, he begins carrying weapons, thinking of himself as a private eye, and describing himself as a ‘forensic gastronomer’.
The first two hundred pages of Hunters & Collectors are an absolute joy as Suddain shifts from style to style, firing images into our minds that create almost a mosaic of backstory; a series of impressions that allow us to understand the realities of the protagonist’s life without the pace ever slowing to the point of actual exposition.
First we get this:
… The restaurant is lavishly depressing, filled with stunned yet well-dressed people: like a reception for a wedding where the bride ran off with the groom’s father. They have a hunter’s cheese called Masemola: made from the milk of sea cows, harvested by seasoned mammal whisperers. Yellowish brown with a rind like the skin on a fisherman’s hands. Hermit-aged in a cave. Reintroduced to society for its seventeenth birthday. He arrives on a special wooden rack, like a pungent martyr. A room-clearer. A woman at the next table started weeping.
Then we get this:
… I have no idea what function the antlers have, or what rules are used to assign genders to each city.
Then we get this:
… I miss home. I miss Montserat’s. I miss laughing with you. I miss your pop and your terrible jokes. I miss Solidad. I miss the weird old houses with their familiar spirits living under the floorboards and in the stovepipes. These floating cities have no spirits, good or bad. They’re empty. There’s no history out here – life is too impermanent. You can’t dig in the earth to find the past since there is no earth. Time is a nightmare. Not a nightmare. It is nightmare. They use a thousand different measures: Synodic month, Integral month; Sidereal day, Incorporeal day. Can you imagine how many fucking boats I’ve missed?
We get all of these fragments in quick succession with a picture of some star-charts momentarily interrupting the flow and forcing us to turn over two pages at once. Suddain provides no real framework through which to understand his words; no context, no explanation, no deeper meaning… just a series of beautifully chosen words and elegantly carved feelings that seem to tumble down a slope and land on top of us. Both the punctuation and sentence structure are eccentric but this is syntax and grammar boiled down to their most basic of functions: Which words go together and when do you breathe?
From this narrative chaos emerges the picture of a man who is completely unprepared for the level of galactic celebrity that has been thrust upon him. Somewhere along the line, he acquires the nickname ‘Tomahawk’ and begins publishing collections of reviews but while the money and fame allow him to continue living an adolescent lifestyle in which he eats unimaginably great food only to destroy it in print while the crowd cheers and sends him naked pictures, you can also sense the unravelling of his mind. At first he starts to lie, then he starts carrying weapons, then he starts encouraging his most demented fans, and then he unexpectedly announces his decision to abandon the protections of anonymity and begin writing and making public appearances under his own name. This turns out to be something of a disastrous misstep as one of Tomahawk’s assistants misinterprets a joke and winds up announcing the critic’s decision to murder a universally-feared dictator known only as the Butcher. With the media already at fever-pitch and a huge backlash already forming, Tomahawk is instantly torn to pieces by the savagery of his own culture. Friends and loved ones disappear as the courts seize his possessions and the media begin making up stories out of whole cloth in order to both feed and satisfy the perceived need for public retribution. Penniless, friendless, and dumped in a prison despite not having done anything wrong, the Tomahawk’s mind falls to pieces and the novel changes tack entirely.
Tomahawk is assigned to work with a therapist of somewhat questionable skill and qualification: On the one hand, the therapist makes the Tomahawk capable of functioning. On the other hand, there is a distinct possibility that the Tomahawk’s mind is being held together by nothing but a series of generic lies. As a reflection of its protagonist’s mental state, Hunters & Collectors transitions from a literary collage to a science-fictional detective story in which nothing is as it appears. Suddain drives home the book’s newfound epistemic uncertainty by having the protagonist’s one-time lawyer and assistant openly question his boss’s sanity.
Before his imiseration and public humiliation, the Tomahawk had been on the trail of a hotel so exclusive that its very existence remains a violently-guarded secret. Convinced that he has somehow gained access to the venue’s exclusive mailing list, the Tomahawk plans to rebuild his career by infiltrating the hotel and writing its first ever review. In order to do this, he wrings one last favour out of his one-time lawyer and personal assistant Beast and his one-time bodyguard Gladys.
Beast and Gladys are never what you would call central to the action as they are never more than foils for the free-wheeling Tomahawk who now goes by his real name of Jonathan Tamberlain. The reason Tamberlain suddenly needs foils is that the book’s transition from literary collage to genre narrative also brings a reliance upon dialogue. In order for the book to function as a dialogue-heavy piece, the protagonist to talk and in order for the protagonist to talk, you need to have someone for him to talk to, hence the arrival of Beast and Gladys.
A further quirk of Suddain’s sudden commitment to dialogue is that the lack of exposition means that it is quite often not clear who is in the room with Tamberlain at any given time. In an effort to combat this, Suddain has Tamberlain make repeated use of other people’s names and so the dialogue rather recalls the (excellent) science-fiction comedy cartoon Rick and Morty in that everyone is forever repeating everyone else’s name. At first you don’t notice, then you get annoyed, then you get bored, then you start smiling.
Creative writing classes will often tell you that the proliferation of names is a product of inelegant scene-setting and an over-reliance on dialogue. The thinking is that if it is clear from context which character is speaking and which character is being addressed then you won’t need to have people repeat each other’s names ad nauseam. While this is absolutely true, the other reason for not endlessly repeating character names is that it makes for a somewhat restless reading experience as dropping the name into the dialogue sends the reader’s attention to that character and when more than one character is speaking, the effect is to send the reader’s attention back and forth between the characters as though it were stuck in a pinball machine. The insight that Suddain shares with the writers of Rick and Morty is that this feeling of over-caffeinated boisterousness is actually an aesthetic with a beauty all of its own.
Tamberlain, Beast, and Gladys arrive at the hotel only to discover that it is a complete dive; the floors are dirty, the staff are rude, and there’s the body of a deceased noblewoman in the corner. Gladys and Beast are convinced that Tamberlain has either gone mad or been swindled but the receptionist appears to know not only who he is but also to be expecting his presence. This presents us with the philosophical mystery that sustains the back half of the novel: Does the secret luxurious hotel actually exist, and if so then why is it full of dead bodies and looks like it rents rooms by the hour?
While Hunters & Collectors recalls both the science-fictional silliness of Rick and Morty and the impacted irony of 1980s action films, its closest genre relative is probably the magical law firm novels written by Tom Holt in the mid-to-late 00s including The Portable Door and You Don’t Have to be Evil to Work Here, but it Helps. Those novels were characterised by the same break-neck pace as Hunters & Collectors and shared its reliance on a plot that involves the characters being dragged backwards through a field of puns, jokes, references, and exciting set-pieces. Though initially quite entertaining, Holt’s novels rapidly ran into the problem that, because his novels were set in a magical landscape where literally anything could happen, nothing that actually did happen appeared to have much meaning; Characters died, characters returned, magical powers were unleashed, plots were foiled, it soon came to feel rather repetitive and nihilistic, which was unarguably the point seeing as the novels were both fantastical farces inspired by Gilbert and Sullivan and satires of the legal profession. While plot and character never had much bearing on Holt’s novels, the series by and large worked because Holt was able to keep tap-dancing so quickly that you never noticed the hollowness of the ideas you happened to encounter. Every few pages another jokes. Every few pages another wonderfully silly idea. After a certain amount of time the book stops and you’ve got a year or so in which to rediscover the urge to read something silly. Hunters & Collectors works in a similar fashion as Suddain keeps us moving from joke to joke, set-piece to set-piece, and idea to idea so quickly that we never really have the time to notice that nothing ever seems to have any substance. Suddain tap dances so well that, despite being 500-pages of very clever writing, the book could easily have been either 250-pages longer or 250-pages shorter. I read it in two long sessions and enjoyed almost every minute of it.
Having finished Hunters & Collectors, I was ready to write quite a middling review as while I loved the sentence-by-sentence writing as well as the collage that is the book’s opening act, I struggled to find much of substance in the 300-pages that followed the implosion of Tomahawk’s mind. Yes, it’s very pretty and it works very well but what does it all mean?
The mystery is resolved right at the end of the novel as Tomahawk concludes his dinner and reveals his understanding of the hotel and the plot it was built to serve. I won’t spoil the mystery as I think the book’s metaphysical ambiguity is part of its charm but I will unpack some of the themes that lie not only within the book’s conclusion but also in its glorious opening section.
Hunters & Collectors is a book about celebrity and the way that online celebrity interacts with social class. Tomahawk presents himself as this hedonistic and transgressive figure but as his destruction suggests, his ability to transgress the rules of polite society is constrained by a particular social contract: As a critic, he can express himself as honestly as he wants as long as that self-expression does not extend beyond the realms of consumer advice to a critique of existing power structures and social systems. Be as rude as you like about restaurant owners, but don’t you dare talk about the government. The social contract also has an – unwritten but understood – rule that your celebrity and popularity are entirely dependent upon your ability to face the right direction at all times. Be as rude as you like about the out-group, but don’t you dare talk about people we aspire to be lest we turn against you. There is also an understanding that making any statement in public (even anonymously) positions you in a world where everyone spends their time tearing each other to pieces. Face the wrong direction and your support will evaporate and once your support evaporates, you can be utterly destroyed even if you have not done or said anything wrong. This is a dog-eat-dog world but only for those without any real power.
The hotel explored by Tamberlain and his friends was built to be a realistic paradise in that its utopian nature reflects an assumed need for both injustice and cruelty. Without perceived injustice there can be no justification for cruelty and a world without cruelty is a world in which at least one human desire is not being indulged.
It would be something of an over-statement to say that Hunters & Collectors constitutes a critique of late-stage capitalism in general and social media-driven culture in particular but it is certainly a book that suggests a real awareness of the way that the dream of free and open online spaces has created something of a gilded hell-scape in which you are just as free to become famous as you are to make your life unliveable. The only way to survive such a hell-scape is to either have money and power or to have the kind of personality that makes you utterly immune to shame.
Jonathan McCalmont is a film critic, fan writer, and columnist for Interzone magazine. One-time Londoner and low-level academic drone, he has now surrendered to the forces of entropy and taken up residence in a wood.