After Karl Temperley’s seventeen-credit-card Ponzi scheme fails, he finds himself facing jail time. A mysterious program called The Transition, in which couples spend six months being coached through adult life, seems to offer an unexpected way out.
This excerpt takes us into Karl and his wife Genevieve’s first experience of The Transition, full of promise and excitement but also an uneasiness that will keep Karl wondering about its secrets. With his debut novel, Luke Kennard crafts a dystopia brimming with social commentary, biting humor, and a “jaunty lightness that makes the pages slip by” (The Guardian).
‘It’s Stu,’ said Genevieve.‘Karl, it’s Stu.’
‘Yep,’ said Karl, looking up to see a tall man with a Mohican approaching the podium.
‘Why is it Stu?’
‘Is he the boss or something?’
Stu put his hands on the lectern, cleared his throat, and looked at the big glass screen which was hanging to his right, seemingly without support. It flickered, and a white oblong, off centre and barely a quarter of the size of the overall screen, appeared. It was a clip-art image of a man with a briefcase taking a big step. Stu looked at the screen. Slowly the words WHAT’S STANDING BETWEEN YOU AND SUCCESS? appeared in Comic Sans by the side of the clip-art businessman, who had a perky smile. There was a wonky blue parallelogram behind him.
‘What’s standing between you and success?’ said Stu.
Karl, to his surprise, felt disappointed.To the extent that he yanked the corner of his anorak free from his neighbour, who looked startled. It doesn’t matter how you dress it up and how good the free coffee is, the medium is the message and the medium is fucking PowerPoint. It was a dismal feeling, like the moment when a delayed train is finally cancelled.
But then the lights went out completely and the clip-art businessman smeared and flickered into a dance of glitches up the glass screen. Karl’s knee-jerk delight at something boring going wrong was hijacked by an orchestral overture via invisible speakers, and a long, low cello improvisation. As the soundtrack dissolved into electronic pops and gurgles, the image left the screen, a jagged mess of pixels, and bounced over the panoptic window, bursting into smaller copies of itself, a screensaver taking over the world; it covered the whole room, morphing into clip-art houses, clip-art office cubicles, cups of coffee, ties and cufflinks, clip-art strong, independent women, clip-art harried looking commuters.The seats by this point were vibrating, and Karl’s laughter was distorted, like a child in a play fight. The images seemed to peel off the glass and float along the rows.The room was swimming in obsolete icons and logos, slogans and mangled business-speak – Push the change, Be the envelope – clip-art Filofaxes and aeroplanes, shoes and computers duplicating, fanning out like cards, whirling and distending, blittering into fragments. The cello piece was melodic, abrasive, fearfully attractive, and the windows resolved into operating systems and programs Karl remembered from childhood, a museum of dead technology, single ribbons of green text, and then the music stopped and darkness was complete – until a spotlight picked out Stu adjusting the point of the second spike of his Mohican.
‘Sorry about that,’ he said. ‘Bit gimmicky.’
Karl was one of the first to start clapping.
‘All right, all right,’ said Stu. ‘There’s no getting away from the fact that this is a lecture, and I know there’s not a single couple in the room who’s chosen to be here, so you can’t blame me for falling back on special effects. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to talk to anyone else yet?’
Silence. Aside from discussing the scene with their partner, none of the couples had exchanged more than a resigned nod, a hello which could have been a hiccup.
‘You all have something in common,’ Stu smirked. ‘I’m kidding. It’s true, though.You’re all feeling a little bruised, I’m assuming. You’re all here under duress, expecting to count out the minutes, endure the insult to your intelligence.You were probably expecting . . .’ He rubbed his right eye. ‘You were probably expecting something like a speeding awareness course, right? I know what they’re like – I’ve been on three.’ He looked at the floor in mock contrition, then glanced up. A ripple of laughter. ‘Well, I’m biased because I love this company, but it’s more like being given a new car. Take out your tablets.’
A mass shifting in the orange chairs. Karl slipped the computer out of its fur-lined pouch. It was a black sheet of glass, eight inches square. The words HELLO, KARL! in the middle. He looked at Genevieve, who was already moving a glowing white orb around hers with her index finger.
‘Your copy of the Transition handbook is on there,’ said Stu. ‘It has everything from the FAQ – constantly updated – to the history of the scheme, to the complaints procedure, which we hope you won’t be needing. But aside from that, you just write on them like a slate. Try it. Write Hello Stu!’
Clusters of Hello Stu!s appeared on the screen behind him.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘We’re going to look at three articles. Use your tablets and just write down your reactions. Whatever comes into your head. Be completely honest.’
The screen faded into a photograph and a long headline. A young woman in an old-fashioned floral-print dress posed by a spiral staircase. The headline: WHEN THIS DESIGNER’S FAMILY GREW SHE BOUGHT THE APARTMENT DOWNSTAIRS AND MADE THEIR HOME A DUPLEX. After ten seconds she was replaced by a man with a beard stirring an orange Crock-Pot: HOW GREG’S POP-UP RESTAURANTS BECAME A PERMANENT CHAIN AND MADE HIM A PROPERTY MAGNATE. Next a shiny man who looked about twelve adjusting his tie in the mirror: WHILE PLAYING WITH HIS TWO-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER, THIS TWENTY-SIX-YEAR-OLD HAPPENED UPON AN IDEA WHICH REVOLUTIONISED THE WAY WE SEE PUBLIC RELATIONS OVERNIGHT. All three appeared together with their headlines.
‘I remind you that this is a completely anonymous process,’ said Stu. ‘We’re interested in your frank, knee-jerk opinions. You have ten seconds.’
Gradually the magazine clippings disappeared from the screen and a selection of comments scrolled across the glass and around the windows:
I want to kill them all.
HOW A PRIVATE INCOME AND MASSIVE INHERITANCE MADE ALL THESE ASSHOLES’ DREAMS COME TRUE!
oh fuck off just fuck off fuck off fuck off
seriously a designer who can make enough to buy TWO FLATS fuck you what does she design nuclear weapons?
‘Good,’ said Stu. ‘This is all good.’
Karl watched as his own comment – what kind of a monster would bring a child into this world? – performed a loop-the-loop off the screen and landed on the window to the east.
‘Okay,’ said Stu while the last of the two hundred comments disappeared into a spiral behind him, as if going down a plughole. ‘I’d like to welcome to the stage Susannah, Greg, and Paul.’
The trio walked onto the stage in unison, dressed exactly as they had been in the projected magazine articles. Susannah’s dress, Karl noticed, actually had a Russian-doll motif. They stopped in the middle of the stage and turned to face the audience, who were quiet. Karl shook his head. Genevieve had put her hand on his knee. The bearded chef folded his arms and looked up bashfully. The designer and the PR man smiled with a hint of defiance. Karl’s temples pulsed. A lone voice yelled ‘BOOOO!,’ which caused some brief, relieved laughter, shared by those onstage.
‘Susannah, out of interest, what do you design?’ said Stu. ‘Patterns for mugs and tableware,’ said Susannah.
‘And maybe you could tell the ladies and gentlemen of the audience what exactly you were doing two years ago today?’
‘This time two years ago,’ said Susannah, pointing into the crowd, ‘I was sitting in that chair, that one, fourth row. I was sitting in that chair writing shitty comments about the three people onstage because they were more successful than me.’
‘We know what it’s like out there,’ said Stu. ‘The landlord puts the rent up every six months. We know. Let alone saving, it’s hard to meet the bills and reduce your debts once you’ve stumped up the rent. We know. You never expected to be earning the salary you’re earning, but on the other hand you never expected to have to think twice about whether you could afford a new pair of socks this month. You’re trapped. The debts keep growing. We know.You’re overqualified for everything except a job that doesn’t actually exist – a historian or something. We know. This is the most expensive house in London.’
A moving image of a hallway covered in dust and rat droppings appeared behind Stu. The point of view tracked inwards towards a grand, sweeping staircase with moss growing on it.
‘Uninhabited for twelve years. A giant, house-shaped gambling chip. None of this is fair. We know it’s not fair. There’s no changing that. So what can you do? You can throw in the towel, eat cereal straight from the box, watch internet porn, and wait for death, if that’s what you want. Or you can be part of the solution. You can get into a position of power and wield it with a little more responsibility. That’s what this is about.’
Luke Kennard is the author of several collections of poetry. He won an Eric Gregory Award in 2005 and was short-listed for the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2007 and for the International Dylan Thomas Prize in 2017. He lectures at the University of Birmingham and was selected by the Poetry Book Society as one of the Next Generation Poets in 2014. The Transition is his first novel.