Friday, 4 July 2014

'Toxic' by Mark Frankland Reviewed by Cally Phillips

I’m  going to come clean from the very beginning and say that I’m only about 1/3 of the way through this book.  Yes, normally I’d be right there with you shouting ‘how can you review a book you’ve only partially read?’ 

Ignoring the fact that I worked in theatre bars for long enough in my life to know that it is standard practice for critics to emerge from a play at ‘half time’, take a drink and leave to write their review, I agree, one should at least read the whole thing before passing comment.  And give it some reflection too.
But I have read the whole thing.  I have read the whole thing and I have only read 1/3 of it. How can that be? Because this, my friends, is serial fiction.  Modern day, up to the minute, serialised online via Mark’s blog and I can warn you – start reading it and you’ll be begging for more.

Mark Frankland (will be tired of hearing me say this as I have said for the past 10 years) is a modern day Dickens. With edge. He writes contemporary ‘thriller’ type stories but they are set in a small town environment and deal with those issues people prefer to sweep under the carpets. Drugs, sectarianism, disease, poverty, PTSD… none of them sanitised or glorified. Warts and all.  But damned good thrillers into the bargain. 

I have a few points of connection with Mark Frankland, but I always feel somehow I come up lacking when I put them ‘out there.’  Mark wrote about BSE in ‘One Man’s Meat’ and the influence of drugs in small town Scotland in ‘the Cull’ – both a gritty rural realism I’ve aimed for all my life and never achieved.  My ‘Foot and Mouth’ contribution was a stageplay (albeit gritty rural realism on stage).  In 2010 when I was ‘reworking’ my Orwellian thoughts as ‘Brand Loyalty’, Mark was writing ‘Mere Anarchy.’  Again, he hit harder, squarer between the eyes and got the job done.

And in ‘Toxic’ he once more does something which I both respect as a writer and lap up as a reader.   As a writer, I’ve been working a lot with 19th century serialised fiction over the last couple of years – one of the big things challenging me was trying to understand what it would feel like as a reader to have to ‘wait’ for instalments. And I’ve done a lot of work on how the serial form actually impacts and shapes the narrative form and style of such writing. And Mark is now writing ‘Toxic’ which allows me to actively experience and explore this personal ‘challenge’ both as a writer and a reader.  Thus as a writer I’m taking a leap in the dark and reviewing a book I’ve only partially read, and as a reader I’m sweating it waiting for the next episode.
I started trying to read Chapter 1 about 4 times online – but the way one’s online life works means that it’s so easy to surf away from the blog screen.  So I waited till there were a few chapters up there and then I downloaded them, went outside and sat and read Chapter s 1-4. Usually enough to tell you if you’re going to ‘enjoy’ something.  I’m not a Thriller fan or reader but when Mark writes, I take the time to read.  And with Toxic I was not disappointed.

The basic conceit of the story is to do with the Independence Referendum. Something I spectacularly fail to be able to connect with as a writer (without seriously pissing people off)  Mark has not only become ‘politicised’ in the sense of appearing at meetings and rallys and things – An Englishman telling us why he’ll be voting yes -  but he’s also taken on the job of turning the whole caboodle into a Thriller which should get a lot of those who don’t give a f**k about politics to engage.   As I say, at heart it’s about Independence. More obviously it’s about Nuclear.  You know that if Scotland gets independence we’ll get rid of Trident , right? Even if you didn’t want an independent Scotland you might feel tempted to vote for this (or not! If not probably don’t read the book or any more of this review) Mark sets up the story to be that there is a dark secret as Faslane, in the form of the US having placed a suitcase nuclear device there in 1980’s when they feared we’d all have had enough of Thatcher and turn ‘commie.’  And now they have no way of getting said device out again – so that if Scotland becomes independent they’ll be ‘discovered.’  Their answer? Rig the Referendum. If we vote ‘No’ then they’ll be Teflon coated for the foreseeable future.
Now you might see this as fanciful. You might see it as conspiracy theory. And you may or may not like either of those things in your fiction.  But you might also just take a breath, think a bit harder about how the Americans carry out their foreign policy and think again.  I shouldn’t need to rattle off things like Bay of Pigs, Guantanamo, Iraq, Syria… you’ll either get my drift or you won’t.  If you think the Star Spangled Banner is a jolly tune and that having a national anthem which you sing while holding your heart which includes the lines ‘bombs bursting in air’ is acceptable, then you had best keep your beliefs tightly clutched to your heart and don’t bother getting into Mark’s fiction.

Of course ‘Toxic’ isn’t real. But if it were? What if there’s a version of it that is real? That’s what Mark serves up to you in his writing. He’s the master of looking at politics and history and giving you the uncomfortable ‘what if’ scenario.  And he serves it up in the context of a ‘thriller’ which is probably, since Dickens, the best way to catch your audience.  And with ‘Toxic’ he’s paying it out right up until the Referendum, so no one can ‘review’ the whole work until that date comes and goes. Which is very, very clever. Also very sobering.  Mark is writing in a world that puts me to shame. He writes in a world of the here and now gritty realism – and for my money he’s doing something both clever by serialising it – he’s effectively writing without a safety net – and he’s doing so incredibly well. 

Part of ‘Toxic’ is going to be serialised in this year’s Edinburgh ebook festival but if you can’t wait then you can catch the first 10 chapters here.  And like me, you’ll be waiting for the next instalment. Mark’s version of reality is chilling and thrilling and all too plausible and yes, it is ‘gripping’ which I think is about the highest praise one can give a Thriller isn’t it?