‘I walked in on my first shift and was met by the manager, Hakan. He was a little prick. I could see it from the start.’
So begins Zero Hours, the second in a proposed ‘Manchester Trilogy’ by realist writer Neil Campbell. We are back with our troubadour narrator, bouncing from menial job to menial job and trying to extract meaning from his experiences, however tedious and soul-destroying they often seem on the surface. In the cavernous Royal Mail sorting centre our man works at a snail’s pace, dreaming up stories and poems and diverting his energies into the pursuit of Zlata, an attractive Bosnian woman who reveals she worked as a political reporter in her homeland.
‘So why are you working in the mail centre?’ he asks.
‘It is complicated. I am not English.’
Their talk turns inevitably to Brexit, and though the man admits ‘I’m shit on politics’, he soon has to contend with her fury over Britain’s decision to leave the EU. ‘I didn’t vote for Brexit,’ he says with defiance.
The truth is, Britain isn’t working for either of these characters, Brexit or no Brexit. Zlata attracts a string of admirers at the mail centre but the father of her son Luka isn’t around and she’s left to manage on her own. British culture is no consolation. In one tragicomical scene, she and the narrator attend a poetry night and Zlata is far from impressed. ‘You ask about the poetry. I have to say that the poetry in my country is better. My country is better for everything. The food is better.’
The humour is never far away in Campbell’s writing, and when it appears – usually in the form of dialogue between characters with opposing points of view – those moments leaven the humdrum happenings that constitute the main character’s day-to-day activities. These mostly involve working in the mail centre, drinking in a succession of pubs in Manchester and its environs, and, by night, trying to build a different kind of a career as a writer and poet.
Reading Sky Hooks, I supposed this character was at least loosely based on Campbell, but as it transpires, Zero Hours reveals the protagonist to be the author himself – or a partly fictionalised version of him, in any case. In passing he makes reference to a short story collection called Pictures from Hopper, which is of course one of Campbell’s books, published in 2011; at another point the ‘character’ notes ‘I had a story in the Best British Short Stories for a third time, but nobody noticed.’ This device makes one wonder whether the novel cycle is as much memoir as fiction, for there’s little here that seems improbable or – at least in terms of plot – the figment of someone’s imagination.
Campbell is a realist writer, and Zero Hours is probably even more true to life and purposefully undramatic than its predecessor. And this is no bad thing, because he is a poet with a knack for describing ordinary episodes that strike an expectedly emotional chord. He is also deeply concerned with place and the indelible imprint left on a person by the sites that represent lodestones of their past. The modern, monied Manchester, for example, is a shiny indictment of capital replacing character, of a mirage in the desert wholly unable to nourish the majority of its sons and daughters: ‘And the tall glass buildings continue to rise around you, nothing to do with you, and they knock down old brick pubs, all that history reduced to rubble, and new buildings rise, and the Beetham Tower whistles in the wind, noise-polluting forgotten places like Hulme, and you’ll see men sorting through the rubble, fishing out the undamaged bricks to fling into skips and sell in bits and bats, the old memories of Manchester fading.’
The nature of the protagonist’s zero hours job – expedited by repeated run-ins with the officious Hakan – means he’s soon out on his ear, but unfazed, he takes an agency job with Manchester Libraries, rotating between places like Wythenshawe and Chorlton. An omnivorous reader and writer, you’d think he might be at home – but libraries aren’t the sanctums of quietude and learnedness they once were, and in no time at all he’s pettily quarrelling with customers in a manner familiar to fans of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Minor characters continually flit in and out of the narrative, some stopping by only to have throwaway, page-long conversations with the narrator, and although at times these interactions might seem pointless, even tedious, taken together they form a kind of realist tapestry, for the most part devoid of sentiment. They offer glimpses into the lives of ordinary Brits muddling along and give a genuine sense of community, one that’s disenfranchised but unshakeably human.
The protagonist continues his pursuit of single mother Zlata even after leaving the mail centre, and they have a few stilted assignations, both apathetically aware that it’s never going to work. It’s as much of a plot line as there is, so if plot is central to your reading experience, Zero Hours won’t be for you. If, however, you like following the exploits of a hardworking writer – a writer who’s arch and unpretentious, sensitive yet carapaced by his own passivity – there’s much here to enjoy. You might even imagine sinking a pint or five with the character (or author, whatever), shooting the shit about Bukowski and Chandler, picking his brains about Manchester’s best watering holes.
There are thoughtful meditations here on literature; on being a writer on a small press; on Brexit Britain; on gentrification; on masculinity and male bonding; on the validity of social media (‘Tweeting and all that bollocks,’ says librarian Colin. ‘Get a life.’); on the titular subject of zero hours contracts, and how so much of working life beneath a certain rung is structurally designed to make you feel miserable, worthless, surplus to requirements. Austerity of the soul.
If it all sounds rather gloomy, well, there’s no escaping the fact. But it’s funny too, even beautiful at times. Books like this one broaden our appreciation for what is meant by phrases like ‘the human experience’ or ‘human condition’. It’s an underdog story without the Rocky ending. Maybe it’ll come in book three.
Don’t count on it.
If you would like to purchase a copy of Zero Hours you can purchase a copy from Salt Publishing here.
Neil Campbell is from Manchester. He has appeared three times in Best British Short Stories. He has two collections of short fiction published Broken Doll and Pictures from Hopper. He also has two collections of flash fiction, Ekphrasis and Fog Lane. Salt published his debut novel, Sky Hooksin 2016. Zero Hours is the sequel to that book, and forms the second part of a Manchester Trilogy.
Author photo copyright © Danny Moran
Reviewed by Ronnie McCluskey
Ronnie McCluskey has also reviewed Sky Hooks here
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