When the character Natasha mutters “we’re victims of our generation” into a vomit-spattered toilet bowl, coming down from one of the book’s several booze-fuelled MDMA binges, it’s a facetious throw-away line: the hedonist’s go-to cliché for the abnegation of personal responsibility, and certainly not meant to be taken seriously. Yet, despite all that, it also sums up the spirit of the novella, which advances and explores a philosophical position, even though it’s anything but a didactic morality tale. In fact, it’s almost literally the opposite.
‘Stillborn’ is everything your mum would consider unsuitable in a book: sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It depicts the rise and fall of a small-time British punk band, and the highs and lows of life outside the bubble of social conformity, without either its proscriptions or protections. Now, reading that blurb, I know what you’re thinking: this is going to fall into one of two camps.
On the one hand, it could be the curve-ball high school set text, smuggled past the board of governors by your ‘hip’ English teacher on a plea of ‘connecting with the youth’. There’ll be an on-rails jaunt through various tableaux of teen ‘reality’ like a fairground House of Horrors—the peer-pressured drug taking there, the unplanned pregnancy there, all against the backdrop of a middle-aged author’s rather-too-vividly-imagined episodes of sexual awakening. Then, when all of this is safely out the way, the slightly haggard post-teen protagonists throw up their arms and say ‘Oh woe is me, I railed against society without appreciating its benefits; mothers, tell your children not to do as I have done, etc.’ and become more politically conservative. Finally, and as long as you all write that in the essay section of your paper, it’s A*s for tea and who’s for cricket?
If not that, it’ll be the rose-tinted reminiscence of an aged punk, written in between furious bouts of effort alphabetising his LP collection. A cast of kooky characters with humorous nicknames will compete in terms of ‘fewest fucks given’ in opposition to various apostles of The Man: the vicar, the headteacher, the author’s mum. Meanwhile, everyone exchanges the same dubious theory of artistic merit while pedantically correcting one another on the minutiae of production rubric, tour dates, and line-up permutations, because dammit the author isn’t going to let any scrap of background knowledge pass un-applauded. A sympathetic reviewer would describe such a work as a Rousseauian rejection of social control and a celebration of the irrepressibility of Man’s essential will to freedom. In fact, of course, such authors are going to write an autobiography come what may, and rightly recognise that in the absence of any substantive past accomplishment or prospect of any to come, they are going to have to paint escapades involving a cling-film twist of speed and twenty-five cans of Red Stripe as blows struck for liberation, or there’s no way it’s getting them laid.
Good news: this is neither of those kinds of book. As far as I know, Platts can take or leave punk (it’s only a vehicle here), isn’t preaching any socio-political standpoint, and most certainly is no friend to Rousseau. He is, however, a card-carrying nihilist—a proper one—and this is one of the few books that actually holds your head towards the existential abyss and makes you look, rather than merely remarking that the abyss exists. The generation of which Damien and Natasha are victims know for sure that the pain they endure is self-inflicted, and that they were given every opportunity to avoid it. Their curse is a comfortable society’s presumption of the desire to realise potential when it is offered, and the consequent inadmissibility of failure or disinclination to do so. In their bid to rebel, the characters rightly infer that the most antisocial, shocking and gratuitously upsetting name they can give their band, rather than the satanic or horror-film references of yesterday’s punks, is one that conjures up the arbitrary and senseless waste of human potential for life and development.
The reason this is a proper nihilist text, as opposed to just an iconoclastic or pessimistic one, is that throughout their trauma, the characters never flinch from this truth to try to explain, justify, or romanticise their actions. They don’t claim to have found, through their suffering, a substitute for last century’s religious or ethical certainties. There’s no ‘moving on’ as though on a road to enlightenment, and any characters who presume to instruct others in proper modes of behaviour are kidding themselves.
However, despite all this, it isn’t an amoral book. Characters know perfectly well the difference between right and wrong; they only don’t claim to know how they know. Though truthfulness and deceit (of oneself or others) both lead to disaster throughout the story, there’s no denying that deceit leaves the deeper scars. Nobody’s proven right, but some are clearly proven wrong. It’s not all bleak, either, since shared confrontation of past and present horrors has therapeutic merit; again, we only don’t know why. Just like real life.
I don’t want to overdo the philosophical angle, because all of this is purely implicit. The book also features some truly great tragi-comic one-liners, as well as well-observed and naturalistic dialogue that’d be the envy of many Booker prize-winners. The plot is simple and satisfying, with no make-weight scenes to bump it up to novel length, and also with the integrity to turn down hackneyed opportunities for the happy ending, the comforting lie. For all that, it’s not too harrowing to read, only poignant. There are more places to laugh than cry.
It’s not one of those books that will ‘save your life’ for you, with all the paternalism that implies. Refreshingly, it’s not out to prove anything in particular, only to depict. Though, as I’ve outlined above, its conceptual basis is solid (and solidly adhered to) it’s a post-modern novel in the best (read: ‘only positive’) sense of that term. I’m not talking about all that pseudo-intellectual maundering about the ‘lack of an externally verifiable constant’, as though that was big news. Rather, it’s about the courage to refuse the writer’s traditional right to instruct. To answer, when the reader puts down the book and asks, ‘so what should I do?’, by shrugging the shoulders and saying, quite honestly, ‘I don’t know. What do you think?’.