This essay is concerned with the representation of violence in Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing, Niall Griffiths’ Sheepshagger and James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late - from the manifest physical violence of war and criminality to what Slavoj Žižek terms “systemic violence” (1), namely, “the violence inherent in a system: not only direct physical violence, but also the more subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploitation, including the threat of violence.” (8) Indeed, this essay suggests that one of the most important functions of physical violence in these novels is to reveal its origins within the structures of institutions: that physical violence is frequently both a symptom of and a reaction to forms of structural violence. The experimentation with style and form which so distinguishes these novels will therefore be seen as participating in a violence against the structures of the novel as a means of representing a Britain whose past and present are not highly ordered but characterised by chaotic violence between nation and state, both hidden and overt.
In order to ascertain the various functions of violence in these novels, it must be recognised that such violence is not simply gratuitous but is directed towards various institutions that have a common agenda in the presentation of violence. One such institution is the mainstream British media who, aside from reporting the details of violence in society, by definition capitalise on it. This fact alone provides a valid reason to be skeptical of the claim that media violence simply reflects violence in society. As W. James Potter remarks: “if the media are holding a mirror up to the world, it is a fun-house mirror that reflects back a greatly distorted picture.” (104) Certainly, that profit is the end-motivation of the mainstream media has implications for the means by which information is presented, means which frequently take the form of spectacle. In The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord explores this phenomenon of the relationship between violence, spectacle and economics, and he too employs the metaphor of a mirror: “[f]or the spectacle is simply the economic realm developing for itself - at once a faithful mirror held up to the production of things and a distorting objectification of the producer.” (16) Both Potter and Debord’s accounts reject the notion of the media simply reflecting reality, but there is one key difference between the two. Debord is categorical in stating that spectacle is best viewed as “a weltanschauung that has been actualized, translated into the material realm - a world view transformed into an objective force.” (13) Potter suggests that the necessity of making profit requires media organisations to participate in a distortion of reality via spectacle. Debord, on the other hand, views spectacle as beyond simple distortion, as a revaluation of the objective, “the very heart of society’s real unreality”. (13) With regard to violence, it is not just a question of the media exaggerating to promote sales, but a question of the media as participating in the establishment of violence as an epistemic condition.
Just like the violence that is its foundation, the mechanism of spectacle can therefore be seen as inherently violent, something that is clearly observable in Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing through the fragmented perceptions of its protagonist, Joy Stone. The typographical experiments such as the use of margins, seemingly irrational indents, lists and even speech bubbles present Joy as a character who consumes and is consumed by media: “I always read everything. I read poems and plays and novels and newspapers and comic books and magazines.” (37) Cairns Craig is correct to note that the typography functions to provide “styles which mimic the discourses by which Joy is surrounded”, but given Debord’s explanation of spectacle being worldview remodeled as objective force, the implication is not simply that these media forms “displace and substitute” (193) Joy’s identity but that they violently structure her way of seeing and indeed thinking - they are her identity. The independence with which different advertising slogans, song lyrics or agony aunt letters are presented on the page is meticulous - even “TESCO’s” is capitalised in accordance with the formatting that is present on the company’s store fronts and plastic bags (Galloway 24). The violence inflicted upon the typographical conventions of the form of the novel can therefore be seen as representing the violence by which Joy’s perceptual capacity is determined, and as being regulated by the visual forms to which she is constantly exposed. What this demonstrates is that it is not just the content of the mainstream media that is violent, but also the way in which it manifests itself; that the effects of spectacle can be violent even where the process itself appears not to be. Joy’s breakdown is not just a reaction to the death of her lover but a result of her obsession with the spectacle of mass media and, correspondingly, despite the ambiguity as to whether she has begun a period of recovery at the novel’s climax, she acknowledges the role of spectacle in her continuing condition: “I have to stop reading these fucking magazines.” (223)
The violence of spectacle as represented in The Trick is to Keep Breathing is made all the more powerful by the novel’s lack of immediate physical violence. Galloway frequently leaves sentences unfinished when descriptions of such physical violence are imminent, something observable particularly in the excerpts from magazine columns: “he is becoming increasingly violent towards her and the”; “Sometimes the fear has a name, like death or nuclear war; other times, it’s nameless. Just something waiting to.” (27) This represents a break in Joy’s own reading of the magazines, indicating her traumatised desire to avoid images of violence, but the implicit presence of these violent images is also indicative of the process by which physical violence is normalised by the media. Indeed, this is one of the direct products of the spectacle of violence, something Hannah Arendt implies in her declaration of “violence and its arbitrariness” (8). The only moment of physical violence occurs when Joy cuts herself on a tin of soup and, crucially, the language of violence is transferred to the soup itself rather than her wound - “[w]atery stuff like plasma...pink fluid...congealing” could refer to bodily fluids, but here is displaced to refer to the spilt foodstuff. Physical violence in the novel is reduced to something accidental, unremarkable (Galloway 38). Joy’s reaction to her wound is not to panic, to reach for a plaster, but instead triggers her obsession with spectacle: “I didn’t need to eat.” (38) The spilt soup becomes more significant than her spilt blood.
It is against such a climate of spectacular violence and its normalisation, as reflected in The Trick is To Keep Breathing, that one must situate the explicit, visceral violence of Niall Griffiths’ Sheepshagger. In this text, all the restraint that is employed by Galloway in her representation of latent violence is released in grotesque, adjectivally-dense passages. Where Galloway displaces descriptions of physical violence, Griffiths foregrounds the corporeal: “the man falls back flat in the running midden of mud and piss, his nose a flattened burst of rapidly spreading redness”(71); “blood lumpy with tooth-chunks”; (88) “eyes leaving their orbits in twin geysers of ichor and plopping into the mud”. (260) What unites all of these passages is a concern with the capacity of violence both to destroy but also to homogenise. Blood is mixed with bits of tooth, with urine and, repeatedly, with mud. These descriptions generate disgust through the disempowering of the body. That which separates the human from the mud - or even from the different bodily areas of itself - is undermined, but such images also create connections by revealing the ultimate proximity of these fluids. Joy Stone suffers from a feeling of alienation as a victim of the spectacle of violence which is “by definition immune from human activity”, (Debord 17) and this is why she states “I want to be held” (Galloway 184). In the society of spectacle, the visual replaces the tactile as a dominant sense, but this only serves to reinforce the power of touch as a form of communication. That Ianto is a character who does not often speak, “Yew could sit in a pub for hours with him and yew’d be lucky if he said ten words” (Griffiths 29), entails that he is a character who instead communicates through physical action, through dancing and through violence.
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