The world in its unease: A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh and Walt by Russell Wangersky

October 22, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

A_Lovely_Way_to_BurnSometimes, fiction rubs up against real-world events in uncanny ways. When she began writing her latest novel, the first instalment in the Plague Times trilogy, Louise Welsh could not have known that it would be published the same year the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in recorded history would sweep across West Africa. And yet the disease, which is name-checked in A Lovely Way to Burn, bears striking resemblance to the fictional pandemic that serves as the backdrop for the book.

The atmosphere Welsh creates is grim: as a global pandemic colloquially called “the sweats” rages out of control, the citizens of London fall victim to the disease and paranoid hysteria in roughly equal measure. As people flee the city in large numbers, vermin begin to take over, a hospital is reduced to “a nightmare of darkened corridors,” and the streets take on “a blighted look.”

Against this stark background, former journalist Stevie Flint ignores advice and her best instincts, both of which tell her to leave the urban area until the sweats has somehow burnt itself out. But Stevie is driven by a need to find out the truth about her boyfriend, a celebrated doctor named Simon Sharkey, who has died, apparently of natural causes. In a city overrun by a deadly airborne disease, the term “natural causes” takes on dreadful connotations. Nevertheless, Stevie is convinced that Simon was murdered, and pursues her investigation in the face of antipathy from people who want to conceal the truth or use her – a survivor of the disease who may be immune – for their own ends.

In her acknowledgements, Welsh admits that her inspiration for the book’s mise en scène arose not from a specific outbreak but from a childhood characterized by “a mild obsession” with nuclear weapons, and from television. “The idea that the collapse of civilization is imminent has been around since ancient times,” the author writes. “Personally, I am amazed that we have survived this long, and while I don’t exactly look forward to the end of the world as we know it, the knowledge that it may be just around the corner probably enhances the way I live.”

The end of the world as we know it may be a bit rash: Welsh’s pestilent dystopia bears certain resemblances to the devastation in West Africa, but her fictional pandemic evinces a mélange of influences. The symptoms of the sweats are similar to Ebola, but the disease in the novel is airborne, making it much closer to SARS, which sowed panic around the globe in 2003.

Certainly, readers of A Lovely Way to Burn will not be able to dissociate the events of the novel from the events unfolding daily across the front pages of their newspapers. (Now that two American nurses have been infected with Ebola on U.S. soil, the West – in particular the States – has finally awoken to the urgent nature of the disease, something all too easy to ignore when it was confined to the African continent.) This lends the novel an added frisson that keeps the pages turning and the reader wondering edgily, “What if?”

Walt_Russell_WangerskyThere is unease aplenty in Russell Wangersky’s new novel, though not as a result of anything so exotic as a deadly airborne virus. The threat at the heart of Walt is staggeringly quotidian, which actually serves to make it that much creepier.

The eponymous character is a janitor at a grocery store in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Walt occupies himself by picking up the shopping lists discarded by patrons leaving the store: tossed indifferently into trash bins, or on the floor. A loner who has developed a keen insight into human psychology, Walt has perfected the art of developing remarkably accurate profiles of the people who create these lists based on the contents, the handwriting, and the type of stationery. If a patron – always female – catches Walt’s attention, he uses their abandoned grocery lists as a springboard to stalk them online, eventually escalating to voyeurism and home invasion.

Wangersky is a journalist, and his spare, reportorial style heightens the disquiet in the book, as does his technique of fracturing the narrative between Walt’s first-person narration, the diary entries of a woman he is observing, and the perspective of one of a pair of cold-case officers on the St. John’s force who think there is something suspicious about the disappearance of Walt’s wife. One of the cops, Inspector Dean Hill, has recently split with his own spouse; there are clear parallels in the way Walt stalks his victims and the time Hill spends outside his estranged wife’s home, observing her from the darkened windows of his car.

As a portrait of a disturbed mind told from the antagonist’s perspective, Walt shares elements in common with American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis and The Collector by John Fowles. Like those books, Walt also features a male character who preys on women, but though Wangersky has written about a misogynist, it would be a mistake to suggest he has written a misogynistic book. He follows in the footsteps of Mailer and Dostoevsky, delving into the psychology of a deeply disturbed character as a means of attempting to understand the motivations behind some of the darkest impulses in the human psyche. That he does so in such a dispassionate way, and using such everyday circumstances as a backdrop, only serves to heighten the creeping discomfort on the part of the reader.

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I’ll be speaking with Louise Welsh on Thursday, October 30, as part of Toronto’s International Festival of Authors. I’ll also be hosting Russell Wangersky at IFOA on Sunday, October 26, as part of a panel that also features Adam Sol and Matthew Thomas.