by Simon Kearns
219 pages, Revenge Ink
Review by Marc Nash
Disclosure - I read the first half of a version of this book when it was posted on Authonomy. Now with a proper publishing deal to showcase it, I finally got the chance to find out how it ended. The author and I have never met, but we have conducted an online conversation about political literature.
Hamlet, Pierre Bezukhov and now Lee Coller - Kearns' particularly modern and British take on literature's "Superfluous Man", he who feels powerless in the world and seeks by a symbolic action to change it at one fell swoop. Coller (choler?) is a graphic designer with a very comfortable lifestyle. All the domestic gadgets, an unhindered consumption of drink and drugs. But he is plagued by the ghost of his conscience. He constantly questions what it all means, what value it has. Clearly there is a nagging dissatisfaction underlying his life.
Then at work he learns that Prime Minister Tony Blair is to tour his office for some PR in a fortnight's time. Now he has a focus for his internal debate. A television image of a grievously disfigured girl from the Iraq conflict is the catalyst around which his diffuse political thoughts begin to converge. A plan is forming in his mind... Mr Blair has to answer for his war-lust policies. The only question being whether it is a verbal protest, as we all have the right to in a democracy, or whether in the face of such impotence, Lee takes an extra-legal stand. The word 'assassin' in the title means there is no spoiling here.
Virtual Assassin presents every angle, every possible position within the contradictions Lee finds himself in the modern world. There is no little irony that his objections to the modern way of life echo those of the disaffected young Muslims who guided aircraft into the Twin Towers. But it doesn't stop him enjoying such fruits, with alcohol and drug-fuelled sleeplessness ratcheting up his febrile fantasies and plans for Mr Blair. He plays a shoot 'em up video game for hours on end even as he deconstructs its vacuity and moral anomie.
Lee resolves on a sharp letter opener to execute the dread deed. But in a wonderful section of the book as he envisions cutting away things at its acute edge, we see that what he is really paring away is his guilt. Whatever the overt form of the political act, at heart lies his own inadequacies in life. Inadequacies that cannot be compensated by material well-being or even a promising relationship with Rosa on the horizon.
The book is genuinely subversive, because it's not really about the political act supposedly at its heart at all. It is full of alternative visions and outcomes, a series of false endings almost, which at times can be a tad confusing. Throughout there is an extended monologue from within some sort of prison cell, but even this is of dubious provenance with reality, once all the facts are in, by the end. And then you recall the title, "Virtual Assassin" and one sees how well this works conceptually, as the reader comes to doubt everything just as protagonist Lee does. We follow the twists and turns of his moral inquiry and also the mirroring convolutions of how the action will play out accordingly. And here for me personally, a veracity of human character. There is less of a character arc, but more one where the character is stuck in the circle of his own weaknesses and anxieties and for all the ruminations and self-inquests, is little able to burst out into any sort of revelation or redemption or any of those hoary old literary tropes.
Welcome to the twenty-first century novel and a political one at that.