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The Transition, Luke Kennard

By Helena McNish, on 4 May 2017

When watching shows like Black Mirror, you are often thrust into immediate alienation from the setting. Perhaps this distance, this immediate self-differentiation, makes such shows easier to digest, despite their clear commentary on today’s society. Luke Kennard’s ‘The Transition’, on the other hand, begins quite the opposite. The protagonist Kyle seems relatively normal – relatable even, to a ‘millennial’ audience. But at some, unidentifiable point things begin to shift, reminding us exactly why dystopian fiction can be so powerful.

Whilst he is more widely known for his poetry, I first came across Kennard’s ‘The Transition’ late last year in an issue of Granta. The extract presented was one not far into the novel, after we have learnt of tragic-hero Karl’s descent into credit card mania and fraud, though I did not know this at the time of reading. Karl and his wife Genevieve are attending the first workshop day of The Transition. This is a scheme onto which they have enrolled as an alternative to Karl going to prison, which initially comes across as a Black Mirror -esque response to self-help guides – TedX meets Big Brother. The couple are sent to live under the watch a pair of ‘mentors’, which is not excessively terrible to begin with given their prior living conditions. They are given free board, free food and a day-to-day allowance, with the expectation that they save their earnings over the 6 months to cover their first mortgage, organised by the scheme. Kyle’s millennial scepticism gets him digging, however, and it is not long before things begin to seem rather more sinister. The familiarity experienced at the start of the novel scratches bone, presenting an underwhelming and at times disturbing future ahead.

The novel is most powerful in its presentation of the ‘jilted generation’; Karl and Genevieve are victims of their ancestors’ decisions, with rent sky-rocketing and wages stagnant, unable to afford health insurance or even to start a family. This is where The Transition comes in, as both a means to salvage the “wronged” and also, it would seem, to reinvigorate a depleting workforce. Black comedy roams throughout, but at the expense of whom: the apathetic young, or the condescending, defensive older generation? “The last decade had seen the professionalisation of the amateur landlord,” Kennard writes, and it hurts – but who is really laughing?

Where the novel is most effective, however, is in its portray of mental illness and those who interact with it. Kennard depicts this with empathy and nuance, though does not eliminate the sense of frustration and repudiation that many bystanders and carers experience. Genevieve’s breakdown is presented second hand, after it had happened rather than witnessed, allowing this sense of dissonance to be maintained. A letter to Karl describes what happens to her, though her name does not once appear in the sketch:

“Subsequently the respondent was found lying in the road with her feet up on the curb. Horns were sounded by passing cars as they manoeuvred around the respondent’s head, and epithets were shouted from windows. The finger was given by the respondent. The respondent was removed from the road by myself and the remaining member of our party. A heated exchange followed and some doubt was felt as to whether anything might be done to help the respondent. The respondent became violent.”

And then:

“A state of sobriety seemed suddenly to have been entered by the respondent and she supported me back to the hotel and the egg-sized lump above my eye was tended to with ice from the minibar. A mutual attraction was felt in the process. A long-term partner was betrayed. Remorse was felt.”

This also reflects Karl’s sustained insistence that when Genevieve is ‘sick’ she becomes another person entirely, the breakdown described without any relation to the Genevieve that we know. Whilst the ending depicts Karl and Genevieve united, his forgiving her for cheating reminds us of a prior point in the novel when he indicates that he would forgive Genevieve infidelity in her depressed state. It is unsettling that, even at this point, Karl remains unable to fully assimilate this Genevieve into that of his wife. This is the reality of mental illness that people find it very difficult to admit, which Kennard presents with subtlety and concern.

It is clear that Kennard’s first calling was poetry; the novel’s greatness lies in its smaller details. I was particularly struck by Karl’s response to his internship of manual labour. He enjoys the repetitive nature of the work, which is particularly interesting given the economic and social theory that runs through though is never explicitly explored in the book. This also shows, less fortunately, in form; Kennard is an ideas man, a poet before a novelist, and this is perhaps why the novel’s ending falls a little flat. Whilst this might have been the ‘point’, it lacks a degree of conviction and strength. Overall however I commend the novel for its accessibility, comedy and insight – a rare and impressive combination. The pages fly by as you read, despite any discomfort that their ideas may activate. If ‘The Transition’ teaches us anything, it is to question and interrogate all in the face of apathy. It is a disturbing book for disturbing times.

Sarah Gilbert