Fernando Sdrigotti’s novelette opens with the shooting of Cyril the lion – an event that, up until reading his book last week, I’d wholly forgotten about. That’s arguably the point: what Sdrigotti’s novelette depicts, in bracing, exhausting detail, is how quickly the world moves on these days, how easy it is for even an outrage to get lost in the morass. But Cyril’s murder isn’t the end, in fact far from it: it’s only the trigger for an entertaining, witty novel which can at times feel deceptively light, but actually takes aim at some really important targets.
“A dentist from Minneapolis books a hunting safari in Zimbabwe,” the book opens. “His name is Walter Turner, a wealthy nobody, completely unknown beyond the confines of his practice and neighbourhood in the suburbs – one more God-fearing American with a dazzling smile and a big cardboard-looking house.” There’s a lot of detail crammed into that second sentence – a whole world in three short lines – and it gives a clue to Sdrigotti’s approach. His narrator hovers at a little distance from Turner, speculating about why he might have done it – maybe he read too much Ernest Hemingway as a teenager, or watched too many films about men performing heroic deeds in hot places, or perhaps he’s working through some issues, or maybe hunting provides him with an escape. And yet Sdrigotti never really allows us to get much closer than that. We’re left to interpret what exactly this all means, how precisely this particular shitstorm got started.
If Sdrigotti had chosen to focus on Walter Turner alone, and the consequences of his actions, then his story would have been a much more conventional (and less interesting) beast. Instead, after a little vignette about Turner, suddenly we’re catapulted into the spiralling world of news cycles: the Daily Mail leaks Turner’s misguided lion selfie, it goes viral, people start threatening to murder Turner’s children. (Meanwhile, Sdrigotti wryly notes, “many more lions get killed in Africa, shot mostly by wealthy men like our dentist. Killed dead by these men who all dress the same, or by those working for them. Lions as lionesque as Cyril. Lions who smelt as bad as Cyril”).
So then Shitstorm starts to look like it’s something else, like it’s a story about news media and how it cannibalises people like Walter Turner, until on page 16 there’s a bomb on a train in Paris and then somehow it’s a different story again. Turner is forgotten (“almost as if Dr Turner never existed”, Sdrigotti writes), and columnists from The Guardian and The Spectator are both writing combative thinkpieces about bombs, and bombers, and what exactly is wrong with the world. It’s so fast paced as to be dizzying, run-on sentence after run-on sentence denying the reader the chance to breathe, and it’s simultaneously clever and maddening. Reading it is very much like watching 24-hour news: it’s just thing after thing after thing until they’re almost emptied of meaning.
And then, just when we’re talking about Islamic terrorism, somebody makes bread with vaginal yeast (and a very rude name), and then suddenly the world is talking about that instead. And then Donald Trump’s sexual affairs are unearthed, and then the woman he slept with is murdered, and then there’s a missile – and then, suddenly, without warning, we’re back on the story of Dr Turner again, several years on. A detailed coda, beautifully rendered, long after the whole shitstorm has died down. Whether or not it’s concluded to your satisfaction remains to be seen: I found the denouement ever so slightly too cryptic for my taste. Nevertheless, it’s highly memorable.
What to say about Shitstorm, then? You may detect a sense of bewilderment in this review, because it’s hard to pin down exactly what this story is, or quite what it’s about. It’s undeniably skilful, and highly entertaining – although I found myself frustrated by Sdrigotti’s habit of using names just far enough away from their real-life counterparts to avoid being sued (Owen James, Maria Farrow). It’s also exasperating at times, but then that’s part of the point, because that’s how the modern world is. Sdrigotti has achieved something remarkable, really – rather than giving us the luxury of escapism, he’s instead shown us the horror of our own world, where nothing much means anything anymore. You might not like what you see, but it’s certainly hard to argue with the way Sdrigotti shows it.
Shitstorm is published by Open Pen Books on November 8th, the first in their series of novelettes (the covers of which are spectacularly beautiful – a series worth collecting). You can buy it here for £4.99, or pre-order all five novelettes for the bargain price of £20 here.
Thanks to Open Pen for providing a free copy of Shitstorm for review.