The New Abject
review by Richard Gough Thomas
The following is a non-fiction writing cliché, but I promise it’s true. On returning home from the shop during a break from writing this review, I found old dog shit in front of the steps leading up to our front door. The obvious questions were where it had come from and why I hadn’t noticed it before, but – in that moment of initial discovery – my critical faculties deserted me. Not simply disgusted – I was revolted, horrified, and briefly paranoid that this was a calculated insult by dog-owners unknown. In that moment, I reeled under two simultaneous psychological blows: an instinctive fear of contagion, coupled with an apparent challenge to the sanctity of my home.
Literary theory calls this “abjection”: a disruption of our usual understanding of identity and order by confronting us with its material reality. Death, decay, shit, and vomit remind us that we are physical beings in a physical world, and lance the certainty of conceptual order – our figurative or abstract ideas about how the world works – with the spike of the real.
The abject isn’t just found in the physical, however. Sarah Eyre and Ra Page’s anthology The New Abject foregrounds social abjection, the people that society expels for not meeting the standard it expects: looking different, speaking different, wanting different things. The socially abject may quickly be made physically abject too, as alienation begets poverty, poverty begets illness, and society rejects the reality of the wretchedness it has created.
One of the great strengths of The New Abject as an anthology is its balance between variety and theme. The stories step quickly from social alienation to queasy body horror and back again, and place heavyweights (Margaret Drabble, Ramsey Campbell) alongside the new voices of today (Lucie McKnight Hardy, Lara Williams).
There are many strong and clever stories here, but to describe them in too much detail runs the risk of murdering to dissect. The book’s best story may be its first: the late Bernardine Bishop’s ‘Stool’ is a subtle piece on chronic illness and a very mundane kind of alienation from one’s own body. The latter theme is continued in Gaia Holmes’ ‘The Universal Stain Remover’, an understated but on-target story which lacerates the degree to which men are allowed to define a woman’s cleanliness. Paul Theroux’s ‘Adobo’ brings a Roald Dahl-esque flavour later in the book; Adam Marek’s ‘It’s a Dinosauromorph, Dumdum’ reads like a modern Ray Bradbury. And Lucie McKnight Hardy’s ‘Wretched’ is a carefully crafted dystopian shocker that brilliantly sets the tone with its language on the first page, although its gritty cyberpunk feel puts it at odds with the more mannered stories in the collection.
One of the recurring themes of this collection is of class as a very British kind of social abjection. Bishop’s ‘Stool’ is bound up in middle-class ideas of property and propriety. Drabble’s ‘The Leftovers’ hints at how one group others another because of the professional and economic relationships between them, and Ramsey Campbell’s ‘Extending the Family’ twists and manipulates both classism and ageism.
Saleem Haddad’s ‘An Enfleshment of Desire’ is a standout of the anthology: like few other things in The New Abject, Haddad’s story describes the strangeness of being a different person in different places. Haddad’s protagonist is a stranger everywhere; yet physical desire provides an anchor somewhere.
Not every story here is perfect – more than one piece ends abruptly or rushes to its payoff over the last two pages. The order of stories is mostly effective, but David Constantine’s poignant ‘Out of the Blue’ should, I feel, have been placed last in the collection (rather than second-to-last) because it makes such a good coda. These feel like quibbles, however – this anthology is thoughtful, evocative, and inventive by turns, and the editors may well have picked some of the best short fiction of 2020.