TERRA EXITUS by Scott M. Liddell
I spent yesterday afternoon and evening reading this pithy nihilistic romance by Scott M. Liddell. It’s a novel of ideas in which our narrator is an outwardly inarticulate, seemingly ordinary Scotsman who’s filled inside by rage and grief. Having found his mother dead in a corridor, waiting for A&E, he is shaken entirely out of his old life and sets off, unthinkingly into a new one, down south, in London – a place where people are ‘feral, wide-eyed foxes darting in fear from one overturned bin to another.’ Which sounds about right.
This is the story of a man who unwittingly becomes a kind of clickbait Messiah. He works in IT so it’s a doddle for him, one boring weekend, to set up a website addressed to all the depressed, disenfranchised people round the world. Almost accidentally he raises a fortune by promising them membership of a society of loners who all would prefer to quietly leave the loathsome planet and go off with the aliens. The money he unwittingly makes he sets about distributing to the needy and trying to do some good, and we soon find out what a crushing and complicated job that is. My favourite scene in the whole novel is perhaps the one where he and his self-appointed manager meet with the parents of a terribly ill child in a pub, so that he can be reluctantly thanked for giving them a massive wodge of cash. Needless to say, it goes a bit wrong, and there’s toe-curling embarrassment all round.
What I love about this novel wasn’t really the philosophy and the raging against the awfulness of people – it was how wonderful the supporting cast was. Our hero gets himself a new girlfriend when he trips over in Hyde Park and clonks himself unconscious on the wine bottle from her picnic. Their relationship is sweetly drawn – even if she remains a little bit of a romantic cipher. Their time in Paris with her father and wandering the city is a much-needed respite from the darkness of the rest of the book. I also loved the haphazardly-acquired best friend Jacob, who is a gobby posho befriended during a horrible party through the medium of insults. There’s a great pathos underneath the bluster of Jacob and the scenes in which he breaks down are very effective.
The trouble with a philosophical novel is that it can sometimes feel that the characters and events are being bent too far to carry the writer’s ideas. The danger is that they can start spouting unmediated philosophy at each other. Here, that stuff is cleverly couched in the scenes when our narrator goes on telly to explain his so-called cult. Of course, he starts to actually speak his own mind, and here’s the bit when we get to the heart of the novel’s ideas. It’s also the point where everything starts to go horribly wrong… and there are a few shocks in the last chapters of the novel that made me feel… manipulated, cross, upset, dumbfounded and full of admiration for the ambition and the chutzpah that went into the writing of this slim and thoughtful book.
Our lead character is a bit of a know-all gobshite, and his girlfriend is a cello-playing, life-affirming paragon and there’s maybe not enough counter-balance to the people-are-shite subtext, but I really enjoyed this book. The writing just rattles along and we really want to know what becomes of these people – which is quite something in a novel of ideas.
(Terra Exitus is currently 99p on Amazon…!)