In the mid-90s, sixteen-year-old Shy sneaks out in the middle of the night from the boarding school for troubled teens he attends that is aptly, if unoriginally named, Last Chance. He’s carrying a rucksack filled with stones to slowly help him sink into the pond. But on his shoulders, he carries the unbearable burden of his troubled and complicated mind.
We don’t know much about Shy. He is passionate about drum N bass and good ol’ generic hoodlum- “He’s sprayed, snorted, smoked, sworn, stolen, cut, punched, run, jumped, crashed an Escort, smashed up a shop, trashed a house, broken a nose, stabbed his stepdad’s finger.”
From the descriptions of others, he is just a complicated kid. Sensitive, yes, if prone to violence that he acts on in an alarmingly cold manner, like when he muses about the day he slashed a bully’s head, “unzips the skin and watches a sheet of blood fall down like special effects”.
Mother and stepfather don’t understand why Shy is like this. Maybe he inherited his mother’s depression; perhaps he got his disconnect from an inability to translate social queues in the scaringly connected world we live in. Whatever it is, it’s evident that everyone, from family to friends, tutors and therapists, fails to recognise Shy’s psychological problems.
To be fair, the reader is only aware of this because all we see is Shy’s perspective. Unassuming, personal and brutally honest, the novel jumbles timelines and Shy’s experiences, interjected by his inner self loathing “If you feel like an idiot, perhaps stop behaving like you”. It is harsh, but so is the inner voice inside all of us.
For the duration of this short (roughly 120-pages) novel, Shy walks towards the pond, recounting the memories of all the moments that led him to this place. All of it is jumbled. Characters and places streamed together in one single path of consciousness. Memories are unreliable – because so is Shy – but simultaneously sincere. It’s disarming, maybe to a fault. It achieves contextualising Shy’s defining moments in the same way as you recall traumatic memories. Traumatic here, not just as agonising distress, but that feeling of making something embarrassing that you replay in your head repeatedly, even if it happened 10 years ago. That’s the mood of Shy.
For this stream of consciousness to work, Max Porter paces the book to a beat, like a Drum N Bass track. He rarely pauses and uses commas over paragraphs. You can almost sing it. It reminded me of Irvine Welsh’s fast-paced gonzo style. Or maybe it’s just the British working-class tempo that Welsh helped to settle into pop culture. Ideas fly from line to line; in a moment, he’s walking by a pond; the next , he’s reminiscing about the embarrassment of his first sexual experience, and he follows it with his colleagues from Last Chance sharing their own stories.
Porter’s choice to commit to Shy’s point of view tightens the narrative. But Porter’s style is idiosyncratic, and little space is left to directly address the critical parts of the message. The winding text reads beautifully. It is poetic and compelling, but when the dust settles, it also feels quietly shallow, like a diatribe of a young teenager filled with rage and little knowledge in knowing how to process it – which, of course, Shy is that teenager, but Porter isn’t.
It’s a short and engrossing read, though. Porter’s style doesn’t outstay its welcome. If most of the book is a deep dive into a young troubled mind’s psyche, the end offers the solace of a warming and sentimental conclusion. A little bout of optimism is always welcome.