I know Gary McMahon‘s work from way back. I believe I read his first published story (in Nasty Piece of Work?) and I’m certain I have a copy of his first, self-published book Tiny Torments around here somewhere (probably worth a packet on eBay now). He’s had three stories published in Black Static, of which this gem from #14 is the most recent, and it was also the issue in which he was the Case Notes featured author, with reviews, an interview, and all the usual bumpf.
The story’s title is probably a reference to the Nirvana song Smells Like Teen Spirit, but if so I’m afraid it’s wasted on me, as if it ain’t Springsteen I don’t care. From the off what we get is pure McMahon, dysfunctional families and sink hole estates, good people clinging on by their fingertips, the whole rooted in the social realist tradition and with more than a whiff of miserablism about it all.
After the death of her husband, viewpoint character Helen has come down in the world, living with her son Todd on a down at heel housing estate, afraid to go out after dark because of the addicts and dealers, afraid of what might happen to her. And yet you sense that all of this is eclipsed by the wedge that’s been driven between her and Todd, the way in which he is now out of control, swearing at her, going out with his mates at all hours of the night, the threat of violence never far away, and tough love as futile as anything else. Bottom line, Helen is afraid of her own son, and the very unnaturalness of this strikes a chord with the reader, so that we shake our heads in sorrow and disbelief as the generation gap is stretched ever wider, and we’re haunted by the thought of what is coming to replace us in the world.
Helen does her best to cope, talking to the ‘ghost’ of Frank, her deceased husband, trying to get through to Todd, but none of it serves any purpose. One time she attempts to follow Todd, to find out where he goes at night with the minatory group of older boys who are his friends, but it’s a lost cause. Intimidating enough in the light of day, the urban streets are the landscape of nightmare after dark, and Helen turns back, with her imagination primed to suggest something far worse than any reality.
Events come to a head when Todd returns home after a three day absence. ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ demands Helen, and he replies, ‘You don’t understand.’ It’s a conversation fraught with cliches, and all of them are true, as the self-pitying voice of one generation clashes with the plaintiff cry of another.
Finally, in an attempt to explain, Todd leads her out into the night. He takes her to an abandoned garage where there is a tank with transparent sides, something very like an aquarium, and in the murky water Helen sees things moving, things that bear a resemblance to her son and his friends. Todd and the other boys torment these nebulous creatures, poke them with sticks, revelling in their pained contortions.
It’s a story that taps into our deepest fears – of poverty, of death and loss, of loneliness and disease, of our own children becoming strangers to us. McMahon is superb at rendering this ‘abomination of desolation’ on the page, making it feel real, something that could touch us personally. And if that was all he meant to achieve then the story succeeds on all counts, but the final section raises the stakes to a whole other level.
Todd’s revelation, the thing that he shows to Helen, is nothing less than the secret of how he and the others manage to survive in this blighted environment. They do so by cutting loose the higher aspects of their nature (‘teen spirit’), the hopes and dreams that make them better than thugs, because only by adopting the uncaring and indifferent personae of thugs can they cope with all the shit life throws at them on a daily basis. They make themselves immune through an insensibility of the spirit, and they laugh at those aspects of their personalities that allowed them to empathise, the better part of themselves now locked away in a fish tank, simply as a way to stand strong and endure.
And they never realise what they have lost.
It’s tempting here to find significance in the use of an aquarium, with its resemblance to a television, and in the things behind the glass see an allusion to reality TV in all its glory. This too is a way to endure, the modern world’s equivalent of bread and circuses, a form of entertainment which, when taken to extremes, can result in a mockery of all that’s best about us, a dumbing down and the cultivation of an indifference that will serve us well as we manoeuvre through the perilous waters of modern life.
I can’t speak to Gary McMahon’s intention, but perhaps, just perhaps, the metaphor is there to be used if you need it.