I first encountered Michael Nath’s work in my final year of university. A friend of mine suggested an impromptu trip to Leicester Literary Festival, and though we were both exhausted from cramming the night before, we summed up the courage to go. At a small stall, tucked away in a corner of the festival building, was a stand for Route Publishing. There, I picked up an intriguing title, La Rochelle. The premise of the book, about a missing woman, grabbed me, but more than that was the first-person style. I immediately knew I was in the hands of a real wordsmith, someone who had shades of Mika Waltari and Gene Wolfe about them, though with a modern bent.
I often struggle with “literary” versus “genre” debates. The reality is, I find much of “literary” fiction very pretentious; vacuous, naval-gazing, solipsistic. But I can also see it from the other side: a lot of genre fiction is formulaic, and is boringly written. I think that both sides need to learn from one another, and Michael Nath is a brilliant writer because he manages to successfully marry the two. He has the plot and pace of a genre book, pared with the style and character of literary fiction. Neither element outweighs the other; he keeps these two delicate polarities counterbalanced, so that we are sucked in by an engaging plot and human drama, whilst also being steadily hypnotised by the elaborate and vivacious style in which he writes.
The Treatment is Nath’s third book, and it is undoubtedly my favourite of an impressive bibliography. It follows journalist Carl Hyatt, who, after being told to drop his inquiries into the criminal background of an untouchable mastermind, Michael Mulhall, finds himself self-demoted to working at a small-time paper (which we’re told, much to Carl’s shame, is handed out free at the Co-Op). However, Carl’s investigation of Mulhall has set entities in motion. As it turns out, the crimes perpetrated by Mulhall and his lackeys the “L Troop”, a gang of six neo-Nazis with a violent and sickening history, have created a web of interconnected consequences. London hasn’t forgotten what Mulhall and the L Troop did. Forces are gathering, trying to sweep up Carl into their wake, intent on bloody revenge that the corrupt law cannot deliver.
The Treatment’s subject matter is heavy: Nath tackles institutionalised racism, hate-crimes, and revenge. Yet he does so in a way that is the very opposite of heavy and didactic: with humour, wit, character, and humanity. The rag-tag band of associates that gravitate towards Carl, each with their own troubled past in relation to Mulhall’s crimes, are a kind of life-affirming panoply of Shakespearean personalities, including Karen Tynan, Carl’s rambunctious wife, a ferocious character who seems to oscillate between ally and enemy. Fabiana, a brilliant journalist with a penchant for martial arts. Fabian J. Morgan, the “Cunctator”, a one-eyed comedian whose rhetoric makes him seem like a man out of time. This is reinforced by the fact he dons a toga for his stage-act. There is no little symbolism in this, especially if we consider Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a play all about betrayal, plotting, and vengeance. Then there is Hanley, a flashy lawyer and also victim of racial abuse. Turbo, a black boxer raised by Fabian J. Morgan. And Donna Juan, an educated Yorkshire lad working as a fake-Latin sex-worker. And many more. 108 characters are woven in and out of the story; each is larger than life and lovingly rendered. And each is vital to pulling together a piece of the puzzle in the battle against Mulhall and his sinister servants. Intriguingly, the number 108 may be significant, for it is the number of “sins” or rather “worldly illusions” that must be overcome in Buddhism to achieve enlightenment.
One of the things that distinguishes this work is that it is rich in ambiguity. The title itself, The Treatment, is a bit of a play on words. “The treatment” refers to the negative treatment of minorities and people of “foreign” cultures. Yet is is also criminal slang, euphemistic for assassinating someone. And, of course, a “treatment” is also a prose version fo a screenplay, which alludes to the dramatic and theatrical nature of the novel, which I will come to later.
Carl Hyatt is a fascinating narrator. While I admit, it took me a little while to “get into” his style, once I had sunk into the rhythm of the book, I was totally hooked. Carl seems incredibly “cynical”, yet his monomania cannot but fail to inspire others to action, creating a hilarious almost Blackadder-esque irony. We get a sense that much like Watson of Arthur Conan Doyle’s world-famous Sherlock Holmes story, Carl is perhaps downplaying his own role in the story, because humility is also part of his character. This allows for a searching commentary on masculinity, as well. Is Carl a coward for not wishing to take violent revenge like the others? Or does that make him a better person? Is it really “manly” to be physically capable or are there other attributes of masculinity that are equally valuable? What even do we mean by “masculinity”?
Some of the most powerful segments of the book were philosophical conversations between Carl, Donna Juan, and a priest, Raymond Vernon: “No. You justified loving your enemies not on grounds of weakness or abjection, or smallness, but for the opposite reason: it was the biggest thing to do, and most powerful. Which was why Christ compared such love to the sun and rain that God sends equally to the just and the unjust… Whereas hatred and revenge-desire wear out the heart that harbours them like broken glass in a paper bag.”
The metaphors are astoundingly simple yet profound. And the brilliance of this segment is, it is only Raymond Vernon’s opinion, filtered through Carl’s prose. Nath doesn’t necessarily offer this up as the final or complete truth. It is a perspective, and that is what comprises The Treatment: a kaleidoscope of perspectives on revenge, justice, what it means to love, what it means to hate, and the human condition. At first, when I read there were 108 characters in the book (there’s even a Dramatis Personae at the start of the novel), I was nervous, but now I see such breadth is necessary to tackle such a deep-rooted and emotive issue. And, what better way to deal with the hateful opinions of the few than showing the true scope and diversity of humanity. However, to say it like this is to take away from how bloody entertaining it all is. It’s fitting there is a Dramatis Personae at the start of the book, because The Treatment feels, at times, like a play; characters are carefully orchestrated to appear on stage, to dazzle us, to speak and offer insight, only then to exit, and for us to feel their absence from the page. You’ll laugh as often as your rage. For example, when Carl explains the difference between normal people and the criminal: “Well, it was that the criminal was happier, complained less, did more of what he wanted.”
Throughout this book are echoes of revenge, such as allusions to The Spanish Tragedy, and, perhaps most movingly for me, the death of Christopher Marlowe, an Elizabethan playwright and contemporary of Shakespeare who was infamously stabbed through the eye in a pub in London (and theories abound as to why). These echoes serve to enrich the narrative and the sense of almost pre-destiny about Carl’s battle against the forces of corruption and bigotry. In the words of our narrator, “The old hate was still vigorous.” But, just as the old hate is strong, we see the friendship and love our cast of quirky characters shows is even stronger, and so The Treatment remains, for all its unflinching insight into the reality and psychology of the worst hate-crimes imaginable, potently uplifting.
The Treatment is published by Hachette and is available here.
Michael Nath is the author of two highly praised novels, La Rochelle which was shortlisted for the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize and British Story.
Reviewed by Joseph Sale
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