Luke Kennard’s The Transition is a striking insight into our calamitous present: the impossible, crushing economic mill-wheel, the disenfranchised generation, and, perhaps most sinister of all, the disintegration of artistic integrity beneath the corporate schema. Though I can’t pretend to know the future, I imagine that The Transition is a startlingly prescient novel – at least if things keep going as they are. Politically charged topics are often mealy affairs, but the true triumph of The Transition is its electric pace. It’s been a long time since I read a book in two sittings – and it’s an awful cliché – but this really is unputdownable. It’s a combination of wit that keeps you choking down laughter, and a tender pathos elicited from prose that is as sensitive as it is dextrous. In Karl and Genevieve Temperley, Luke Kennard has created two emblems of our age: Karl is an English graduate with an expertise in Metaphysical Poetry; Genevieve is a school teacher. Karl can only make money with his skills via writing essays for rich, lazy students and through manipulative advertising blogs; Genevieve is on the verge of constant breakdown. They are flawed characters whom we immediately root for, laugh at, and ultimately, weep with. At times you hate one or the other, other times you’re not sure how to feel about either of them, but you always care, as if they were your own children. The Transition might be said to be about growing up. But it is also about the terrible peril of doing so.
The premise is simple – deceptively so. Karl is called up on a minor tax violation, and is given the choice of either a jail sentence or six months with ‘The Transition’ program. His wife, Genevieve, is required to come with him on this venture. At first, it seems like everything is okay: it’s nothing more than a mentorship rehabilitation program, but as time goes on Karl notices more and more amiss and feels like he and Genevieve’s mentors, Stu and Janna, are driving a wedge between them. Much like in Exoskeleton, Shane Stadler’s horror masterpiece, in which the protagonist William is given a choice between prison or a short time on ‘the program’, we readers already know from the outset that this is going to be a very, very, very bad move. Rather than allowing this foreknowledge numb the blow, however, Luke uses it to amp up the tension. When will it all go pear-shaped? Exactly how is The Transition not what it appears to be? Mystery and answers are finely balanced here so we never feel frustrated by endless riddles. It’s taut, layered narrative that drives on at a ferocious pace.
The sublimity of The Transition is the inherent empathy in its execution, not just with its protagonists (how could I not relate to people who might as well have been mirrors of myself and my partner?), but also with its antagonists. Through this empathetic lens, Luke Kennard probes questions of identity: If we have a psychotic episode resulting from mental illness, is that really us or is it someone else? If we do the right thing for the wrong reasons, does that still make us a good person? The acute observations never let up. What’s more, we’re not hit over the head, they arise through incidental dialogue, through excerpts from books or articles Karl is reading, through subtext – oh, The Transition is bursting with subtext. I imagine Luke Kennard wrote the entire novel with comment boxes on each line: ‘This is what this character is really saying here’. What works about this is it renders the dialogue, all the interactions in fact, vivid, realistic and truthful. When there is emotion, it is never melodrama. When there is confrontation, it never escalates beyond credulity. In a world full of writers writing stories in bubbles untethered from the realm of human interaction, The Transition is a welcome anchoring in the real. But boy, is it terrifying too. Luke captures the frustration of being unable to voice coherent argument, of being psychologically manipulated by articulate, crafty opponents, of being oppressed by a system in ways so subtle they cannot be credibly argued against.
There’s also an easy modernity here. One gets the sense that Luke Kennard doesn’t need to spend hours researching the latest fads, he knows because he exists at the cutting edge, is living in our world and taking in his surroundings with a keen eye. There are references to everything from meme-culture to clickbait articles to the latest coffee-shop fads, but none of it feels shoe-horned in. When so many writers resort to writing technology out of their narratives (or re-writing what technology looks like altogether), it’s riveting to read something that represents our modern world in a balanced way, both its demons and beauties. The Transition is a book that many people of my generation (I’m sure of all generations) are going to find scary, because it is showing us a window into our own lives, which is something all writers should do, but almost none are ever thanked for. The outlook is bleak; but at least we have each other, right?
Paranoia, neuroses and mania seethe from the prose, every page a squirming twist of the mind, to the extent one cannot help but feel Luke Kennard has suffered a little from all of these in time. But these traits are a weapon, forging an incredible narrative voice that is as urgent as it is funny, and that taps into the universal vulnerabilities of the human mind. Karl is suspicious of everything, sometimes rightly so, and other times, we suspect, incorrectly. His non-existent self-esteem leads him to dizzying feats of self-annihilation – but in a bizarre way this becomes a quietly courageous statement about the evil of how our modern world asks us to conform, of the vanity of assuming we know what’s best for others. I’m not even sure Karl could be called an anti-hero, but he is, in the most tangential, non-literal way, heroic.
The Transition is, above all else, a necessary book, much like Orwell’s 1984 seventy years prior. In the midst of the avalanching madness of our times, as we are constantly bombarded with toxic viewpoints from all sides, this novel offers us a crystal-clear insight into the true state of things – psychologically, economically, and most importantly, spiritually. I don’t mean this in a strictly religious sense, rather in the way of the Metaphysical Poets, whom Karl so admires, concerned with things above our earthly world: art, love, humanity, the soul. Because, as the The Transition so deftly makes clear, it is the very intangibility of these things which makes them so important, as well as the very reason we have forgotten them.
Luke Kennard was born in Kingston-upon-Thames in 1981 and grew up in Luton.
He is a poet and writer of fiction. He holds a PhD in English from the University of Exeter and lectures in creative writing at the University of Birmingham.
Kennard won an Eric Gregory award in 2005 for his first collection of prose poems The Solex Brothers (2005, Stride Books). His second collection of poetry The Harbour Beyond the Movie (2007) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2007 making him the youngest poet ever to be nominated for the award.
His third book, The Migraine Hotel, was published in by Salt in 2009 and a pamphlet, Planet-Shaped Horse, was published by Nine Arches Press in 2011. His latest collection, A Lost Expression, was published by Salt in 2012.
His first fiction publication, Holophin (Penned in the Margins, 2012), won the Saboteur Award for Best Novella 2013.
He also writes for the stage and radio and has taken numerous productions to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
The Transition was published by Harper Collins on 26th Janauary 2017.
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Review by Joseph Sale
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