BOOK REVIEW: Politics of the Asylum by Adam Steiner

Hospitals are a narrative gold-mine. These are places where lives end and begin, love is declared and hearts are fixed and broken. They make for great metaphors, too – Lindsay Anderson’s ‘Britannia Hospital’ anatomised a whole surgeon’s gallery of English maladies through the lurching tones of comedy, satire and outright body horror. With the NHS under unceasing attack and its future looking ever more uncertain, there has never been a better time for a writer with inside experience to lay bare its inner workings

Adam Steiner is not that writer. ‘Politics of the Asylum’, his debut novel, is a very different sort of beast. Written in a self-consciously poetic style, one that often resembles Iain Sinclair at his very foggiest, Steiner documents the episodic sufferings of the marvellously named Nathan Finewax, a hospital cleaner coming unstuck in the bowels of a nameless institution. Much of this, it seems, is inspired by his own time working in the NHS. There are quotas and targets, dwindling resources, and the grotesque attentions of the cruel matron Queen Bitch and the mysterious Spectator.

The blurb bills this as a ‘nightmare vision’ and this is very much the case. Your enjoyment of the book will depend entirely on your tolerance for Steiner’s wild tonal shifts and constant formal experiments. Reading this novel is rather like cycling through dormant tabs on an open browser; each new page brings something different to the mix. There are chapters delivered as forms and reports, some written as poetry and some in which sex and surgical precision intermingle. Scattered giddily among these are images, diagrams and epithets, the whole Tristram Shandy. In rare moments, Steiner dials back the style and the characters come up for air, exposing the novel’s tender heart. Yet these moments are few and the dominant mode is a kind of restless panic, best expressed in the final sections where all sense seems to fall away.

This is never an easy read, and may be best browsed through and taken in parts, but Steiner’s game-playing and flair for the Gothic suggest interesting things to come.

Politics of the Asylum is published by Urbane Publications and is available here.

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Adam Steiner

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Adam Steiner has worked in the NHS as a cleaner and porter and in mental health – later finding a career in independent publishing and book production. Adam is currently running the Disappear Here project to produce a series of poetry films about Coventry ringroad.

His poetry and fiction appear in Rockland Lit, Proletarian Poetry, The Next Review, Fractured Nuance zine, BoscRev: 4, The Weary Blues, The Stare’s Nest, ShoutOut UK, 3:AM, The Cadaverine, Spontaneity, Abridged 0-13, The Literateur, Nostrovia! SquawkBack, NOUS. Anthologies: Interpal – Palestine Verses, Fugue 1 (Siren Press), Poems Underwater, Stepaway – Voicewalks (Durham University). He was selected for the 2014 Ó Bhéal Coventry-Cork Twin Cities Poetry Exchange and was part of the Coventry SHOOT Festival, 2014. He is former Editor of Here Comes Everyone magazine.

Politics of the Asylum published in March 2018.

Reviewed by Nick Garrard 

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