“Unreal City” – by Michael Smith


This novel has no plot to speak of: man of indeterminate age wanders around London, visits his sister in Paris, and contemplates his louche, faux-bohemian, penniless lifestyle, past and present. It has no plot twists, no action, little dialogue, no character development, and in fact no memorable characters. And it’s a cracker of a novel.

Smith is a wordsmith. His descriptions of the underbelly of London – raucous Soho, damp and cavernous Hackney warehouses, gentrified Shoreditch – are rhythmical and stylish and he has an unfailing eye for detail. The novel’s title is taken from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (“Unreal City/Under the brown fog of a winter dawn”) and the same tone of decay and dissolution permeates the book.

Michael Smith. Photo by Carla Borel

His wanderer is a very twentieth century non-hero. He is a flâneur, a “creative” – it’s never entirely clear how he makes his money – with a property portfolio made up of one beach hut sans electricity. Some time in the past he hobnobbed with arty types and had a creative flowering that saw him invited to bohemian gatherings, where he mixed with luminaries of the art world. Then it stopped. Now he’s borderline destitute.

If I had one criticism, it’s that the book could have done with a final, final edit, not to strip it down further (at 144 pages, it’s already slim) but to tidy it up. For example, the word “two” should never precede the word “twins”. The adjective “cathedralesque” is eye-catching, but we don’t need it twice in one sentence. Occasionally, the prose style gets excessive. But I must add that the prose style is what makes this novel. Smith is simply a joy to read.

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