The geriatric millennial has yet to come of age; in fiction, at least. With memories of a childhood truncated by the emergent internet, and experience of an adolescence prolonged by the sense of an uncertain future – due either to dwindling economic resources or looming environmental collapse – the type is pivotal to an understanding of our portentous and precarious moment. With The End of Nightwork, Aidan Cottrell-Boyce has given us a protagonist who inhabits this ‘unique vantage point’.
“…an ambitious and intriguing debut. Due to a mismatch in form and content, however, the reader who wishes to parse its varied parts will have the sense, with its narrator, of time running out.”
Pol suffers from a fictional condition which causes him to age suddenly, in ‘heterochronous shocks’, so that at thirteen he assumes, overnight, the physicality of a man ten years his senior. By his early thirties, he awaits his second shock on an unstable footing. His condition has meant an ephemeral education, save a lifelong interest in the writings of Bartholomew Playfere, an obscure (and also fictional) seventeenth century prophet who led his followers to ‘await the battle of Armageddon’ on an island off the coast of Connemara. Pol, by contrast, drifts purposelessly through life, eventually taking up casual work tutoring the daughter of a friend on the ideas of Playfere and other thinkers of the English Civil War. His student, it turns out, has ideas of her own, not least a burgeoning interest in the contemporary philosophy of Kourism – an online movement that espouses intergenerational conflict on the basis that the old have by means of technological manipulation conspired to hoard the ‘Natural Dignity’ that would otherwise be accounted the exclusive birthright of the young – and urges its adherents to equally apocalyptic ends.
All this talk of apocalypse – a term whose original meaning is something like ‘revelation’ – raises questions as to the technical matter of exposition: we learn the details of Pol’s condition directly, as the narrative is addressed to his young son. If the effect of this second-person narration is initially to underline Pol’s sense of existential urgency, it begins to grate as the details of his mundane existence accumulate. Why would his young son want to know about the chorizo and croissant he eats of an aimless afternoon? Why, for that matter, would we? Details which could seem vital in the context of a simpler, realist novel, having been selected carefully for the sake of verisimilitude, seem less so in view of the ideas Cottrell-Boyce has chosen to foreground. The prose itself is fitful and fragmentary, broken up as it is into short, separated paragraphs. This facilitates the author’s urge to shift between the various relationships he wishes to explore – with the father who was a marginal, forbidding presence in Pol’s youth; or the mother whose dementia renders her absent at the end of her life. But the outcome of this erratic extrospection is that Pol himself appears only as though reflected in the shards of a broken mirror, so that a picture of the whole man, including any insights he may have to offer, does not come into focus.
The End of Nightwork is an ambitious and intriguing debut. Due to a mismatch in form and content, however, the reader who wishes to parse its varied parts will have the sense, with its narrator, of time running out.
Words: Diarmuid McGreal
The End of Nightwork