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Jonathan Lyon: One to watch (©Sophie Laroux via HarperCollins)


It is a fact that a high proportion of unreliable narrators of novels are intelligent, arrogant, badly-behaved, young males. The protagonists of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers, and Sebastian Faulks’s Engleby, tumble to mind. A fair proportion of their authors have the same characteristics, suggesting that their protagonists are wish-fulfilling free agents in the universe of fiction, who are nonetheless held at some respectable distance. I would say that the narrator of Jonathan Lyon’s debut novel Carnivore is another such, but for the fact that Leander — young, reckless, near-heartless, poetry-fuelled and drug-saturated — is not flagged as unreliable. He is a hipster hero, self-consciously of the millennial generation that has dragged the twitching carcass of postmodernism into the present in order to set it up in (qualified) judgment on vaguely-identified evils.

Leander, who is fond of opining, at one point opines that “Spoilers are for disposable stories”. “If the ending only affects you once, then it’s a weak ending.” So here goes.

Like D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love and many another modernist novel, Carnivore emphasises space over time. Its 300 pages cover only half a week, whilst oscillating between a handful of London locations. The structure is cyclical: Leander takes drugs, creates havoc and/or experiences violence, travels by car from one venue to another, changes his clothes, and repeats. But these cycles form a spiral. Although for about half the novel I doubted it, there is a plot. Leander is a bisexual male prostitute, estranged from his parents but close to an older mother-figure, Dawn. The latter unwittingly becomes involved with a gangster whose mob traffics people to England for farmwork and sex. Leander desultorily if riskily pursues this mob, whilst trying to emotionally wound his on-off boyfriend Francis, who is Dawn’s biological son. Though he is beaten and raped more than once, Leander eventually secures the suicide of the villain, and blows up most of the latter’s sidekicks in a Brixton bar. By this point he has decided that he loves Francis after all, and the novel ends with their reconciliation.

The first point to make is that this plot is not physically possible. A real Leander would have died from his wounds and/or drugs well before the novel’s few days are out, meaning that he neatly combines in himself two of Mel Gibson’s most famous roles: the eponymous crazed pursuer of violent criminals in Mad Max’s post-apocalyptic Melbourne, and the Jesus of The Passion of the Christ, who would have died from his scourging long before reaching Golgotha. The gangster plot and the “love” plot are linked by Leander’s sociopathic sado-masochism: both his wish to wound, and to be wounded, are purportedly explained by the fact that he (like his creator) has for around a decade suffered from a combination of chronic pain and fatigue which the medical profession has failed to diagnose let alone cure. Leander seeks drugs, power, pain, play, performance and the risk of death, in order to achieve at least temporary dissociation from this condition. Rather like Judith Rashleigh in L.S. Hilton’s Maestra (reviewed here last year), he rampages the world with a selfishness presented as the response to a deep personal injury.

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