‘A Novel By Arthur Nersesian, Author of The Fuck-Up’ proclaims the cover of The Swing Voter Of Staten Island. It may not be the world’s greatest claim to fame, but it’s certainly a notable one. The Fuck-Up, in addition to having one of the best slacker-lit titles ever to have been put down on paper, has garnered something of a cult following since its publication in 1997, and rightly so. It’s hard to improve on Hal Sirowitz’s succinct opinion that the The Fuck-Up was ‘Trainspotting without drugs’, and it had almost as large an impact on underground literary culture as Irvine Welsh’s career-making hit.
In comparison, The Swing Voter Of Staten Island is a big disappointment. It sees Nersesian branching out from his usual witty observations of New York life and trying his hand at dystopian satire instead. The novel is still set in New York City, but this is not the cleaned-up NYC that Rudy Giuliani is currently trying to use as his passport to the White House. Instead Nersesian presents an alternate version of the metropolis, constructed in the Nevada desert for military training but now used to house – or, rather, imprison – all the social elements that the current regime has deemed undesirable. Its inhabitants have split into two political factions, the Piggers and the Crappers (no bonus points for guessing which parties these are supposed to represent), and its urban battleground resembles Giuliani’s worst nightmare. Life is necessarily complicated in a city where everyone’s got an axe to grind.
Into this hellhole Nersesian throws his protagonist, the oddly named Uli. It’s entirely possible that this isn’t his real name, as somewhere along the way he’s acquired a severe case of amnesia – all he remembers is a set of instructions to assassinate someone called Dropt, which cycle over and over through his mind as if he’s been subjected to the worst kind of hypnosis. As events spiral beyond his control he finds himself lost in the grotesque urban maze of the new New York, staggering from one bizarre encounter to another with very little idea of what’s actually going on.
Unfortunately Uli’s confusion is also the reader’s, and while Nersesian has shown himself to be a master of contemporary urban satire, his touch is not so delicate when it comes to dystopian fantasy. While it’s admirable that he wants to expand his repertoire, there’s much to be said for sticking to what you do well. With The Swing Voter Of Staten Island he tries to construct an Orwellian vision of an alternate America, spiced up with some of Philip K Dick’s political paranoia, but all too often it falls short of the mark. There are some nice touches amid the jumble of images, but too much of the imagery strikes a false note and ultimately there’s too tenuous a grip on reality for the average reader to buy into Nersesian’s fable.
It doesn’t help that this book finishes mid-story, with a follow-up promised later in 2008. Having battled through almost three hundred pages, it’s not unreasonable to expect at least some kind of resolution – although many of the characters are so two-dimensional that most readers may not care about not finding out what happens to them.
Like much dystopian and utopian fiction, The Swing Voter Of Staten Island works well as a philosophical and political treatise, but it fails as a novel. Maybe the second instalment in the series will rescue it from the literary slagheap of failed experimental fiction – only time will tell. In the meantime we can only hope that Arthur Nersesian recovers some of his trademark wit and ditches the political fables before his next outing.