Stunning Lofts by Tom Gidley
Tom Gidley’s Stunning Lofts is an adroit, jam-packed and rather humorous novel that expertly conveys, with studied detail, the excruciating dilemma of existing, on a day to day basis, within a society bereft of meaning and substance. With more than a smidgeon of Raoul Vaneigem poured in for good measure it turns out to be a dense exploration of free will, but rather than being a novel about the revolution of everyday life, Stunning Lofts concerns itself with the humdrum realisation that there will be no revolution and no escape from the mechanisms designed to crush and mould an individual. Stunning Lofts's milieu is a world of conform or die. The novel is infused with a detached bitterness only a disgruntled Londoner (or any city-dweller) can muster and because of this Stunning Lofts makes for good reading.
Stunning Lofts is split into two, mirroring, narrative fragments: one following a disgruntled office worker forced to accept his lot and the other an amnesia-suffering homeless man wandering the streets of London. Both are nameless and anonymous, both are outsiders to greater or lesser degrees. Both are looking for a beautiful place to remain in the world. It seems that it’s finding it that’s the root of their problems. Our office worker hates his job, and his colleagues, with an intense passion and is literally sinking into a thick goo of management-speak and pointless meetings:
Each one left him more forlorn and miserable. It was like watching someone endlessly climbing a sheer wall of ice and constantly sliding back down, only to start up again. (Pg 124).
Touches of Camus’ Sisyphus on ice maybe, but the same repetitive, pointless sentiment all the same, only unlike Sisyphus (and this is turning into a regular stance in contemporary literature of this ilk) Gidley’s Sisyphus isn’t happy. Meanwhile our nameless and homeless narrator’s world is a little more complex, brutal and disjointed (and it is in these segments that Gidley gets to prove his mettle as a prose stylist):
My legs are sore. Sore from all the lying down, standing up, the endless walking walking walking. I must try to walk normally. Try to walk like all the others, not like myself on a bad day, a day like today. Limp for one second and they’re onto you, they’ve got your number. Limping not allowed. Limping not taken into consideration. Limping Shuffling Stumbling Staggering Simply Not Fucking Tolerated At All. Marching Pushing Shoving Fucking Goose-Stepping Approved of and Appreciated. (Pg 17).
It is a world of cat and mouse, of have and have not, of mind-numbingly depressing missed opportunities and locked doors, of hands in the face, of not, or never for that matter, belonging. Some of Gidley’s best writing is contained in these passages and they are, existing alone, quite believable. The same themes seem to govern all stratospheres of society: those of longing and hope, or alienation and despair. They either drive us onwards or burry us, smother and ruin us. Ultimately leave us behind.
Without giving too much away (although the premise is quite ostensible from the outset of Stunning Lofts) the crux of this tale is:
Mirror: Do you reflect on what you see, or mirror the views I present? (Pg 309).
Both narratives merge into one story: that of the seeking of paradise, a place that is unique and one’s own, whether it is a Loft conversion in inner-city London or a “street in a village near Bari”. The hope of attaining is still the same. Such hope can filter down into heart-felt desperation, such as the homeless narrator’s favourite game, which involves walking into bars and restaurants, being the only places he is noticed immediately, unlike the streets he walks:
I do it out of sheer boredom, to break the spell of not existing at all. Walk in turn and walk out again. Experience the small explosion of activity I create, the impression I make, and leave again. It makes me laugh. (Pg 292-293).
For such a fleeting moment existence is his, it is on his terms, governed by his own reckoning and laws - and it is beautiful for him. Compare to our disgruntled office drone’s idea of personal beauty:
The lighthouse at the tip of a tiny Welsh peninsula, approached in a small boat at dawn under the cover of rolling black clouds. That inlet from the sea somewhere on the south west coast of Sweden that suddenly becomes a twisting stream set in dense woodland, lined by a scattering of modernist houses. These are some of mine. . .The ones that have really stayed with me, become my own Beautiful Places, have been moments of almost sublime bliss. Times when I have felt as if I might be the only person in the world, relaxed and completely connected to where I am. (Pg 9)
Both, although worlds apart, are the very same conceit, only acted out differently as society has dictated. Both narratives convey such dilemmas with force. Stunning Lofts hits home on that level, it is a guttural, and most importantly, a human novel. Both narratives exist in their intense solipsistic states but are at the same time one story, with one underlying theme: just what or who governs our existence? The constraints set out by a I-Work-Therefore-I-Am society, whose laws may as well be a cauldron of bubbling nothingness to an individual caught in its trap? Or the same individual’s imagination? The same possibilities allowing an individual to either sink or swim in a world of unremitting cruelty?
Once more Metronome Press have delivered us a thought-provoking novel of skill, vim and wit. Tom Gidley’s writing is compelling, and although his debut may be covering old ground his sharp retelling injects a new lease of life into a continuing philosophy of detachment and belonging. And long may this continue.