As windows into the anxieties of modern living go, few are quite as clarifying as trip to a newsstand. Magazine cover lines blast a consistent message of encouragement and promise, varying the theme depending on whether the magazine is targeted at women (“20 ways to drive him wild in bed!”), men (“killer abs in 10 days!”), investors (“the next tech companies set to soar!”), or just a self-aware human (“scientifically proven steps for mindfulness!”). The lines are engineered to make you to open your wallet for the magazine and whatever it’s shilling inside, and I trust I’m not alone in habitually reversing their sentiments to expose how they judge you: you’re not having sex right, you’re out of shape, you’re bad with money, you lack calm, you lack, you lack, you lack.
Karl, the middle-class British suburbanite at the center of Luke Kennard’s debut novel, The Transition, embodies the anxiety and entrapment of everyday capitalism, the way you can be a critic of commercialism’s abuses even while you can’t help being one of its victims. Karl is on the verge of a prison term for being a mostly (but not entirely) unwitting accessory to an online money-skimming operation, and badly overextended financially, maxing out even the “one beautiful, transparent credit card which shimmered like a puddle of petrol.” He has one last-ditch option, his accountant friend informs him: The Transition, a public-private outfit of vague origins that promises a path out for Karl and his schoolteacher wife, Genevieve, so long as they sign on to be mentored — practically drill-sergeanted — into getting with the program of being an effective consumer-investor widget.
Those mentors, the couple Stu and Janna, are the kind of hyper-confident, go-get-’em capitalist achievers that have been the target of many a corporate satire in the past twenty years. Stu has interesting hair and a fearsome workout regimen; Janna is a straight talker who blunts her candor with Karl by also appearing to be sexually available. A wall in their home has a poster that parodies the British stick-to-it-ive-ness of “Keep Calm and Carry On,” transforming it into a Nike swoosh: “Get Things Done.” But their dynamism is seductive to Genevieve, who has a history of anxiety, dislikes her job, and feels a dose of “economic house arrest” couldn’t hurt, if all it involves is keeping a diary on the tablets they’re given. And giving some of their earnings to the Transition. And weaning herself off drugs, which Janna says are harmful. And . . .
You get the idea — the Transition is a malevolent force in debt-refi clothing. And though Kennard is wise enough to know that we, like Karl, are skeptical of the scheme from the start, he ably spaces out the increasingly troubling revelations about the Transition across the novel. A hefty manual of dark, gnomic parables has the air of the cultic, while Stu and Janna’s pronouncements about pharmacological cleansing and separation from mainstream society have a strong whiff of Scientology; Karl’s discovery of a resistance to the Transition, via a message scraped in tiny letters on his Transition-provided bed, is torn clean from the “don’t let the bastards grind you down” samizdat in The Handmaid’s Tale. Karl’s investigations ultimately lead him to an occult novel that suggests just how rapaciously the Transition behaves. It is, creepily, getting things done.
Kennard presents Karl’s enlightenment (and horror) as a kind of intellectual thriller — can our hero save his life and save his marriage and find a meaningful path to a comfortable middle-class existence? That’s a pleasure in itself, though The Transition also reflects an anxiety similar to Karl’s — the problem of how to effectively braid a thriller and a social novel. The Transition itself is unquestionably a menace, but Kennard is strenuously avoiding the more stormclouded rhetoric of dystopian novels like 1984 or even The Handmaid’s Tale, which means he only glancingly considers the social structures that prompt the scheme’s existence in the first place. Little is made, for example, of the fact that Karl’s post-arrest career — writing positive reviews of products he hasn’t used and ghostwriting term papers — is soaked in immorality. Karl is designed to be a recognizable Everyman, with a deep store of sarcastic remarks and indie-rock T-shirts, but he’s a harder sell as the slacker leader of a resistance — his complaints have more to do with how he’s personally affected than how millions are. The sole character who seems to point to a deeper rot is the accountant who suggested the Transition in the first place, and who’s prone to ugly Mephistophelean diktats: “Institutions have their flaws, Karl, but ultimately they’re just tools and structures. There’s no right or wrong, there’s no morality whatsoever; it’s irrelevant.”
Believing in that ugly sentiment, Kennard suggests, is the oxygen that the Transition needs to breathe. But though the shame in that rightly belongs to the kind of political and commercial interests that would create something like the Transition, we don’t get a clear sense of what those interests look like. Instead, we mainly see how it trickles down, the kind of self-blame that it produces: “A generation who had benefited from unrivalled educational opportunities and decades of peacetime, who nonetheless seemed determined to self-destruct through petty crime, alcohol abuse and financial incompetence; a generation who didn’t vote; who had given up on making any kind of contribution to society and blamed anyone but themselves for it.”
Kennard’s not wrong there; humans do have their flaws. But so do institutions. The best dystopian novels recognize both.