Talented and socially perceptive author’s second work is entertaining, and stimulating read, as he appears at public talk today in his native South London…
HIS SECOND novel, far more than his first, is hard to place into a simple genre.
About contemporary ideas, tick.
Social realism, another tick. But let’s stop there, because that is precisely the sort of thought process that our author, Koushik Banerjea, in ‘Category Unknown’ is attempting to debunk. Perhaps the title says everything you need to know about that particular way of thinking (and labelling).
This is a rich, darkly comic tale of the ups and downs of city life as experienced by four quite disparate, but loosely connected, characters.
His debut novel, ‘Another Kind of Concrete’ (2019) is more sober, controlled and sedate, relatively speaking and about a family of four, with two British-born teenage sons growing up in the late 1970s in a South London milieu – all adjusting to Britain, and the parents having come through the trauma of Partition in Bengal.
By contrast, ‘Category Unknown’ is the more imaginative, playful, funny and risky venture.
You can read it as a simple story about four ethnically different characters living in London between roughly 1978 and 2008 – no questions asked – or you can allow it to probe and prod you with reflections about the people and the world around you – as any good reader would and must.
There is no question that Banerjea wants to challenge identity politics and all that goes with it. This isn’t an overtly political novel, which is one of its huge strengths, but there is a politics in there, if you are looking for it.
“These are lives lived through the different registers of their historical circumstances whereas those who are the ‘professional’ working class, self-appointed gender activists and similar types are not characters that especially interest me,” explained Banerjea to www.asianculturevulture.com, speaking not long after the book’s publication earlier this year. “The broader interest is when life and lived to its artistic limits – the political tenor of the wider environment with time coded references here – the New Cross fire, the rise of Thatcher, the darkness and oblivion of the 1980s – and the wild abandon of all that goes with the attempt to impose autocratic values upon a population or land space that refuses it.”
This novel positively crackles with it – resistance, defiance, withdrawal from what the mainstream is looking to impose.
In many ways, it is a celebration of all that – revelling in the unconventional, the unpredictable and the spirited.
There is a sense of authenticity and power in the real here. These are characters you will have met – whether you live anywhere near South London or not.
Each character has a clear arc: Conrad, from estate kid, to something rather more rarefied, but always conscious of his Jamaican roots.
Laura, a Spanish immigrant student to the big city who embodies both the contradictions and hope of a society that moved from Franco and Fascism to Democracy and the EU; and Roxy, a posh Indian lass, who has her mind and body tuned to prizes few can discern, let alone seize.
All these characters go against themselves to some degree – they simply do not conform to the social trope most would see or predict for them.
The reader is taken then on a dizzying, heady, funny tale from the late 1970s into the world of the financial crash of 2008.
Banerjea mentions “cussedness” as a way of describing how these characters are – but it is more complicated than that. It’s easy to have characters behave like this, but they must do so, within a story that works.
And it does, because the time and place of these lives are precise and authentic and therefore, believable, and credible.
“I’ll say this with every breath of my being, what delights me and has always delighted me is cussedness – that ability, in everyday life to say, hang on mate, I am not going to do this just because you told me to and by itself that makes for a wide recalibration of politics and cultural values.”
This is most apparent in his central character or ‘D’, the one we feel like we hear the most about in this novel.
Born into a solidly working-class family and on a South London council estate, he eschews the limited social options open to him (especially of its time and place).
It’s Banerjea’s attention to detail, his understanding and knowledge of certain subcultures that is also impressive and telling.
The constant labelling – clothing brands and style of trainers could be grating for some, but for others it is a form of code and a very distinct social marker.
The musical references are splendid too for anyone who enjoys and recognises the subcultures that often nurtured certain social groups of that time.
Our characters may not necessarily understand or appreciate what’s is going on, but Banerjea puts you in a time and place where you might possibly begin to – and that is the beauty of this book and Banerjea’s writing.
They may misunderstand themselves but only because they can’t see the historical forces at work in their ‘subjugation’ or ‘division’, we might say.
In a form, we and they are being taught, nay ‘trained’, to misunderstand that.
“The problem is that so much of what might pass for culture is now little more than a performance of surface – as in social media platforms. None of it amounts to a very great deal. It is the first casualty of a loss of historical depth.”
That is important to Banerjea.
“People have lost the ability to be serious students of history.
“It’s like people are arguing about the small stuff and have failed to notice there is a Russian tank division on Lewisham High Street,” he joked.
For those students of broader political culture, there is much here – but it cannot be shoehorned to fit a particular narrative – the orthodoxies of both Right and Left are conflated, almost gleefully so.
Banerjea as you might expect is quite happy to have a discussion – (row seems more appropriate but we can give him the benefit of any doubt) challenging the shibboleths of the traditional Left, identity politics and those who think code switching is something that has happened in the age of Instagram.
“Every migrant knows, it’s about survival,” he said of social code switching. His characters are very adept at it.
“Ambition is important and to underplay that is dishonest. People who do that are already comfortable,” he argued, clearly having those parts of the body politic keen to classify folks, in his crosshairs.
This is much more than the sum of his travels from South London through BBC, academia and the LSE, youth and DJ work. There are beautiful insights, from all no doubt, but his skill is that we don’t recognise them in that facile way.
Read ‘Category Unkown’ and you will all know exactly what we mean.
Published by the well-established London Books, which also produces the work of Irvine Welsh (‘Trainspotting’), and the iconic John King (‘The Football Factory‘), ‘Category Unknown’ should be (and deserves to be) on its way to having its own cult status, that should, in time, fan out from the Badlands of South London to many a distant shore.
*Some minor amendments hae been made to the text since first publication
In Conversation: Koushik Banerjea and fellow author Marie-Claire Amuah, 7.30pm, Thursday (today), November 17, Kirkdale Bookshop, 272 Kirkdale, London SE26 4RS
Category Unknown by Koushik Banerjea, published by London Books (Summer 2022) more/buy: https://www.london-books.co.uk/product-page/category-unknown-by-koushik-banerjea