The Folded Man – it’s grim up north

Book cover: The Folded Man - Matt HillBrian Meredith is a disabled man in a dystopian near-future.

He’s the least likely (and least likeable) person to hold the fate of the country in his hands. Prepare yourself for tomorrow: it’s going to be bleak.

One of these days I’ll read a book set in Manchester that isn’t bleak, and I’ll be so shocked I’ll have to sit down for a minute. And drink tea. From childhood (Elidor) onwards, this industrial capital of the northwest has featured in numerous books as a brooding background for the unhappy and abandoned. Perhaps it was the urban decay of the later 20th century that begged for dystopia – once-proud Victorian stonework crumbling, covered in gang tags advertising knifings, racial tensions rising as incomes dropped. Perhaps it really is that grim Up North (full disclaimer: I’m from up north; I’m reserving judgment).

The Folded Man is set in the far-too-near future, a 2018 in which the internet has been turned off; mobile comms are for the very few; motorways for even fewer. Manchester is standing in for New York, the Beetham Tower blown up in a terrorist attack and replaced by a beam of light that shines nightly as a memory of what was lost.

Distrust and media hype regularly turn the population into murderous rioting mobs, fuelled by racism but lashing out at whatever (and whoever) ends up in their path. The local government rules with an iron hand, its racist legislation limiting the movements of people of colour and its heavy ordinance wheeled out for riot control with little care for who may get caught in the line of fire.

Our protagonist, Brian, is poorly-adapted for dystopian living. His legs fused together from birth, he’s stuck in a wheelchair and terrified he’s turning into a fish. His obsessive coping strategies include exfoliating salt baths to rid himself of the scales he’s sure he’s growing, eating his own hair (when his head is shaved part-way through the novel, he has to improvise. Don’t think about that too hard), and wallowing in self-loathing. He sits in his flat and watches reality tv streamed live from the helmets of soldiers in the Middle East. Once a week he abuses the carer who delivers food and tries to make him take care of himself. Very rarely he puts himself through the humiliating agony of a visit to a local brothel.

Brian is dragged into a plot involving rightwing nutjobs and ends up in possession of a mysterious box that must never be opened – just as racial tensions boil over into a full-scale local uprising. Told in a terse, disjointed present tense, this doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but Brian is as confused as you are, and often drug-addled to boot.

At the mercy of anyone who can grab his wheelchair, he has little control over events – at a key point he’s simply taken off to hospital for a regular check-up by a well-meaning social worker. He’s not in any position to be a hero, but it’s also not in his nature. Even when he attempts to claim some agency, he is at the mercy of his obsessions – stopping to take a salt bath in a looted bath store during a riot. Key scenes – such as an attack by pigeons – underline his helpless rage at the world.

I found story references to things that we know haven’t happened in our present awkward (actually a clue to a late plot kink involving parallel worlds), undercutting the suspension of disbelief on a first-time read. However, I could believe in Brian’s character arc; while he shows some signs of growing as a human being (having found someone more vulnerable than he is), he is ultimately still defined by his obsessions and most deeply-held fears.

It’s a bit like a mash up of Jeff Noon, The Wasp Factory and the worst of the evening news: disjointed, unpleasant and walking a fine line of you simply abandoning it as a bad job. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I can’t help but think that Hill is one to watch and I have to give him points for making the rare choice of exploring disabilities in dystopia.