Kurt Vonnegut says in his classic Breakfast of Champions, ‘Bad chemicals and bad ideas were the Yin and Yang of madness’. There’s method to Lloyd Markhams madness in Bad Ideas/Chemicals.
We meet Cassandra Fish, the protagonist, in the bath, and she’s wearing a space suit waiting for her alien parents to take her home to Alpha Centauri, an other worldly utopia. An absurd start to an absurd book. Yet, it’s setting, characters and themes are familiar and real.
Markham presents Goregree, the town, in a subtle and effective way. The descriptions are cunning and suggestive. Jones’ shop is described as ‘once part of a cluster of five small businesses […] It stands alone’. Markham builds the atmosphere with little description which gives freedom to the reader to imagine his own Goregree; its disused power plant, towering over it and spitting out its chemicals and contaminating the local wildlife and residents. It’s a corpse of a town, slowly dying and rotting. Yes, it’s made up, but it’s not fake. This town sounds familiar because this fake town can be seen all over post-industrial Wales. There’s an abandoned Goregree Power Plant in every town. Once a livelihood and sources of income, now rusty and empty. Always polluting.
The shops are boarded up, or if they’re open, they are closing soon, the floor in the night club is sticky and the taxi driver is a local celeb. The half light neon signs Cassandra sees are the ones we see when walking home from the train station. The Careers, Lifestyles & Attitudes coordinator’s face is that of the one at our local college; the ‘teenage human leaning by the wall’ is the same one that you teach on a Monday morning, or lives next door to you. He’s your son, brother or nephew.
Yet cutting through the realism is the absurdness as if slapping the reader in the face in case the familiar becomes mundane.
To what or who belongs the strange yellow eyes the characters see in the forest?
What exactly is GOTE?
Is Cassandra an alien?
Escapism is one of the main themes of the book. There is nothing to do in Goregree other than get drunk, high, or die. Yet for some reason, nobody leaves. The only escape route, it seems, is to hope that your alien parents will come and beam you up.
There’s no employment since the Power Plant closed. Unemployment, zero hour contracts, austerity, care system, sexuality, assisted dying, alcohol and drug abuse and the generation divide are discussed with brutal language and with tender care: ‘Alice sighs. Her nan is a bigot. It has taken her a while to accept this. Throughout childhood she had convinced herself that Nan was misunderstood, uninformed, from a different time.’ Alice’s nan makes her feel like ‘a slug melting in salt’. Observing the society around her, Cassandra proclaims that ‘ Humans are nothing but dirty water.’
Bad Ideas/Chemicals is an unnerving read if read with a newspaper in the other hand. Underlaying the absurdness is a serious, real and poignant message. Bad Ideas/Chemicals shows us the catastrophic results of local fossil fuel pollution. Goregree Power Plant’s pollution has led to rat size cockroaches, braincell-killing drugs and murderous tendencies. As two world super powers threaten each other with nuclear warfare world leaders could learn a lesson from reading this book. It also shines a hideous light on the grotesque results of greed and capitalism.
Markam has a unique voice. His language is constantly dark and clear, no simile or adjective is wasted or out of place. His turn of phrase and observations can be beautifully sad. For example:
But what’s the key words in marriage hey? ’Til death do us part. Marriage is as much about death as it is love. It’s about choosing someone to die with.
“Freedom of speech isn’t something somebody else gives you. That’s something you give to yourself” tweeted @Kurt_Vonnegut today. It might be hard for Cassandra and her friends to be sober in Goregree. Post-Brexit and post-industrial Wales is a hard place to live for many but in Markham those who feel that they are voiceless or trapped have found a distinct champion in Markham encouraging the Cassandra’s of the world to dream and seek their own Alpha Centauri.
Bad Ideas/Chemicals is available now from Parthian Books.