Once upon a time, we were happy to believe that all narratives were like journeys, and all journeys like narratives. The great affair was to move: towards arrival, or completion, or understanding. Even that quintessential handbook of highway hedonism, Kerouac’s On the Road, screams with purpose. But that was before we became paralysed with the self-consciousness of being postmodern and post-historical, where nothing means anything, and history leads nowhere.

  Such seems to be the nihilistic philosophy powering James Meek’s extraordinary Drivetime, hurtling us down roads of endless endlessness, which have no beginnings either. His novel is a dizzying subversion of that most clichéd of Scottish journeys, from Edinburgh to Glasgow: it takes a week, a slightly circuitous route through most of central and eastern Europe, and involves three travellers, a few civil wars, a painted egg and a dead snake.

    The driver’s excruciatingly futile quest winds its way around loopholes in space and time, where relationships and events become locked into cycles of surreal repetition. Like its hero’s name, Alan Allen, Drivetime is always different, alway the same. Kicked out of Edinburgh University and fleeing to ‘warm, hard and cool’ Glasgow, he buys a car to get him there, but in order to afford it agrees to traverse continents to retrieve the aforementioned antique egg for a rich stranger. In tow are the ‘mental nurse’ Deirdre and messianic nutter Mike, who baseball-bats university professors for teaching books, and others because they don’t read them. Within the frantically fruitless circlings of the plot, Deirdre falls triangularly in and out of love with Mike and Alan. So Mike baseball-bats Alan too.

    Heading for futures which never take place, Allan is doomed to repeat a past where a case of mistaken identity has spawned ever-uglier chains of violence and social disintegration. Dodgy town councillors and housing-scheme unrest in Edinburgh gradually escalate into global fascist terror-squads and countries raped by ethnic cleansing. If a novel with as disconcertingly absurdist a plot as this can be said to have a climax, it is Meek’s appallingly vivid allegorical allusions to the insanity of the Bosnian conflict (and others), where Mike and his baseball bat strike out symbolically as the human sickness breeding all forms of oppressive power relations.

    On the level of its tirelessly creative illogic, Meek’s narrative is a compelling tour de force. The maniac energy of Kerouac pulses throughout the prose, but there is also a hallucinatory horror and hyper-realist constraint miraculously balanced in a manner which suggests the perfect fusion of Kafka and Kelman. From the latter, the innovation of dispensing with speech-markers is refined as the perfect stylistic reflex for dissolving barriers between the real and the surreal, the past and present, and even cultural differences - every member of the large cosmopolitan cast affects the same disconcertingly flat and neutral English.

    There are pages of hypnotic brilliance which recreate uncannily the elusive, transcendent temporality of Drivetime and its domains of nowhereness: evocations lyrical and grim of service station restaurants, desolate lay-bys or sweeps of transcontinental tunnels and motorways which literally accelerate the eye across the pages.

    It has to be said, too, that the result is not without its longueurs (though no journey is). Certain scenarios seem spun out beyond their relevance and purpose, occasionally blurring the intense focus of the writing. One temporary passenger is the poignant Sim, a young homosexual dying of AIDS whose pathetically child-like yearnings for innocent enjoyment are cruelly contradicted by his prematurely rotting body. Meek captures this very individual predicament with moving sensitivity, only to spoil the compassion through heavy-handed and ultimately tedious emphasis. Elsewhere, much rough-edged phrasing and soggy syntax would have benefited from sharper editorial vigilance.

    It could be a tauter novel, but if you undertake a journey as uncharted, daring and disturbing as the nightmare mapped here, then the least you should expect are bumpy roads. James Meek is most certainly going places.

©The Scotsman 1996

Review of Drivetime by Gavin Wallace, The Scotsman, 20 January 1996

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