When it comes to reviewing new works of fiction, the Nothing in the Rulebook team are always keen to jump at the opportunity. So, when we were offered the opportunity to review Politics of the Asylum, the debut novel by poet, publisher, short story writer and concept artist Adam Steiner, we leapt (both figuratively and literally) at the chance. What’s more, when we heard that Steiner’s book would draw on his own personal experiences working in the NHS, examining some of the tragic effects of recent neoliberal politics on our treasured healthcare service, we were filled with a genuine excitement (this may be expected; after all, our biggest creative project last year involved the publication and distribution of thousands of haikus in support of the NHS).
So, first thing’s first, what’s the plot?
Politics of the Asylum follows Nathan Finewax – a cleaner in a hospital steadily falling apart. He’s working on a ward where staff cheat, lie and steal to get ahead, where targets, death tolls and finance overrule patient care, and every day the same mistakes are repeated in a seemingly unstoppable wave of failures. Nathan is sucked deeper into the hospital routine as he dreams of escape, trying to avoid one day becoming a patient himself in this house of horrors.
Sounds great, right? Well, that’s where things get a little more nuanced. You see, this is a novel that, while startlingly original, is also almost as challenging as it is unique. In fact, to call it a novel, in the traditional sense of the word, is perhaps somewhat misleading. So much so, that we are somewhat bemused to say that Politics of the Asylum is perhaps the first novel we have reviewed that has split the opinions of our creative collective firmly down the middle. A little bit like marmite, there are those here at Nothing in the Rulebook towers who love the book; and those who found it more difficult.
As we are nothing if not a democracy, we decided that the best way to approach the review of this book, therefore, was to turn it less into a review, and more into a transcribed conversation between our two reviewers.
Without further ado, therefore, we hereby introduce you to a colossal debate of expert opinion between Professor Wu – amphibious philosophical mastermind and all-round fan of Steiner’s work; and Tom Andrews – NITRB’s resident book reviewer and human being, and some may say a ‘Steiner-sceptic’ (at least, for now…).
Bang the gong: aka – reviewers, fight (verbally, of course)!
Professor Wu (PW):
Okay, so this is powerful prose if ever I saw it. Though you can tell Steiner is a poet. The language he uses in the book vividly depicts a broken system – an institution where madness abounds and insanity reigns supreme. It would have been easy to say “the NHS is falling apart because of systematic government cuts, bonkers private finance initiatives and underhanded privatisation” – because all that has been said a thousand times before. It’s all true of course; neoliberalism is destroying one of Britain’s most sacred institutions. But what Steiner does so brilliantly is to make the reader not just see what is happening – but to feel what is happening to the NHS. His lyric essays – which is how I’d describe them – capture the frustrations and rage of those people caught within the tangled bureaucracy in a way I’ve personally not seen or experienced before. If we ever needed proof that we find new ways of looking at the world through stories; this is it. Totally unique – and an important work for our times!
Tom Andrews (TA):
Can I just start by quoting the first line of this book?
‘I intensify atoms. With every step, every breath between pause, a rushing haze of red water flicks – to remind me – there’s that ugly taste on the lips.’
It’s a long way from ‘Once upon a time..’ I fear that the language rather tends to obscure the message and the author is too concerned with being poetic to be clear. Some may struggle to get beyond the early pages – it’s not a book concerned with telling a story or being accessible. Steiner should be praised for his ability to find inspiration in the most unlikely and mundane places (he is currently producing a series of poetry films about the Coventry ring road). He captures well the dullness, the numbing and futile nature of a dead end job.
I understand where you’re coming from with the first line – there’s an element of obscurity that may not be to everyone’s taste. I think in part you almost have two options here – analyse it line by line, word by word, on a granular detail – or take it more in swathes, read each piece of the jigsaw and try and see what images or feelings it stirs within you, as a reader.
For the general reader I think the second approach is best. No writer wants (or should want) to turn their work into a classroom exercise where you have to find meaning in a rose thorn. But in the same way I can happily go to a modern art or traditional art gallery and stare at artworks without any schooling in the medium, I think readers can take this book and find emotions and themes without necessarily having to have them laid out in a traditional narrative model. In a way, the point may even be the obscurity – working within a bureaucratic behemoth like the NHS is bound to make one feel not only obscure; but confused, alienated; disoriented.
This, for me, speaks to an even bigger theme and question at the heart of the book. You rightly raise the point about accessibility. You’re talking about accessibility of language, but within the context of the NHS, we should be talking about accessibility of healthcare. Increasingly what we are seeing is that the founding principles of the NHS are slowly being corrupted under this Tory government, and that healthcare is increasingly restricted, and less accessible. The recent case of Albert Thompson is an extreme example, but we are now at the point where UK citizens are being denied access to life saving treatment because of their background. And that’s before we even start to think about increased waiting times, and certain services being removed from NHS provision. In this way, you could say that some of the inaccessibility is a way of holding a mirror up to a system that is being turned into such a mess of procedures and process that restricts access to patients – just as we as readers are restricted from an ‘easy’ or accessible route into the narrative.
I appreciate this may be a bit of a cheap argument – and I think it’s important to note that this book perhaps isn’t for anyone looking for just a bit of light reading before bed. But for me, part of the narrative comes from the way the reader has to find meaning and explore the language of the book in the same way the principle protagonist/narrator has to explore the tangled web of work within the NHS.
I also think you’re dead right about the way this doesn’t just have to be about the NHS – it could, as you say, be about any ‘dead end’ job. For workers and people living in a world in which it so often seems the only purpose of your life is to go out and get things for yourself and gratify yourself and buy things and own more and more and more – finding meaning within your existence (and poetic meaning at that) is something we could all with having more of.
“You do have a point about this book resembling it’s subject matter: it’s chaotic and overstretched, much like the service itself.” – Tom Andrews
I don’t want to dismiss the work as dead end – it keeps the NHS going.
However, there is a certain air of futility, of fighting against a tide of mess just to create a fleeting cleanliness that is quickly destroyed.
The text itself certainly experimental and full of ideas. As the novel progresses, bold type, page layouts and single use onomatopoeia make an appearance. A later chapter is written in the form of a patient’s medical notes, including this delightful couplet.
‘This Pepto gives no cure to the fire/with haunting sounds of Orpheus’s lyre.’
I’m not saying a journalistic expose would be better and as you said there is no lack of statistics and first hand testimony to illustrate the problems facing the NHS, but I feel that by putting across his experiences in such a form, Steiner is in danger of preaching to the converted like you and me.
There’s a certain incoherence as if it is a collection of poems or lyric essays which want to be a novel rather than a novel in the strictest sense. The description as a novel is perhaps unhelpful as I was expecting something rather more conventional from the blurb. You do have a point about this book resembling its subject matter: it’s chaotic and overstretched like the service itself.
“I think Steiner’s work can act as a clarion call to all those who are invested in the continued existence of the NHS.” – Professor Wu
Your question of whether this book has an air of preaching to the converted is an interesting one – you’re certainly right that there’s an element that supporters of our healthcare system may approach this work and others like it with an air of intrinsic bias. We want to support the NHS by any means necessary, so any project that strives to do that may be one we inherently think positively of.
So the question here I suppose is whether the more superficial aspects of the work – the changes in form, structure, the poetic lyrics, etc – are unhelpful to reaching new audiences and convincing them of the value of the NHS (as well as the current challenges the system is facing).
My concern is that by arguing that such aspects hinder the accessibility of the work, one could use a similar thought pattern to dismiss poetry and lyricism more generally. Should readers be essentially pandered to? If someone expects to read a novel and suddenly finds they have accidentally read a poem or lyric essay, have they somehow been wronged? Do they deserve compensation? Do they require a warning label on the cover of any book along the lines of “warning, may contain poetry”?
Poetry has long been a vital form of art as a form of protest. Since Percy Bysshe Shelley was moved to pen poetic verse in protest at the Peterloo massacre. The Masque of Anarchy advocates radical social action and non-violent resistance: “Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you- / Ye are many — they are few”.
In the same way, I think Steiner’s work can act as a clarion call to all those who are invested in the continued existence of the NHS. Not only rallying the troops but gaining new supporters from those who appreciate writing that is attempting to do new things.
Conformity with formal structures of writing and the status quo may not have the same impact as a work that challenges its readers’ assumptions.
The difficulty in reviewing experimental and out of the ordinary writing is that I might dismiss something just because it isn’t what I am accustomed to. I’m not sure that I have the tools to find the merits in this, lacking as I do the literary background of an amphibian professor like yourself. Certainly, I would not have chosen this book for my personal reading.
Lyrical makes it sound like this is going to be a pleasant, beauty in the details, kind of book. It’s more of a warts-and-blood-and-pus-and-death kind of book – imaginative but not necessarily beautiful.
It could well rouse opinions among people who are more vaguely angry about the NHS than specifically engaged, although it would be a distinctly avant-garde bit of clarion playing.
Intrigued? Perturbed? Baffled? Read the first chapter here –
Read the book and want to get involved in the conversation? Leave a comment below!
Haven’t read the book and want to get involved? Buy the book from publisher’s Urbane Piblications via Amazon here https://urbanepublications.com/books/politics-of-the-asylum/