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Book Review A shrewd observation of the absurdities of modern labour

Swan Songs
Lee Scott
Repeater £10.99

THERE aren’t enough novels about work – despite it taking up so much time, of each day, of each life.

Lee Scott’s debut novel Swan Songs is about working in a Big Pharma factory where a mysterious chemical solution is transferred into vials that are packed and then dispatched.

Our hero and narrator, Leonard Swanson, has been compelled by the Job Centre in Churchtown (a simulacrum for Scott’s native Runcorn) to take on shifts as a line-picker. His job is menial in the extreme, but also soul-destroying because Leonard is an aspiring rap legend and would much prefer to be at home working on “the best album ever” – the Swan Songs of the title.

Deciphering his low mood, Leonard confesses: “I realised… the main cause of my consternation: the fact I had succumbed to working for someone else.” He then recalls, with fond nostalgia, previous survival schemes, from thieving, to pirating videos, to claiming “estrangement” from his mum and signing on.

The story is also about the creative process and how being a singer, musician, producer and touring performer involves inhabiting an atemporal wormhole, getting lost in lyrics and beats even while trying to make sense of the world: the factory and workmates, and the wider world of grim, beaten-up, hopeless Church Town, with its cash converter shops, rotting New Town mono-blocs and blasted utopian layout, “all roads leading to the same McDonalds drive thru.”

Scott is a shrewd observer of working-class dysfunction and the particular absurdities of modern labour: the vicious control over employees’ time, zero-hours contracts, sub-zero job satisfaction. But, adding a layer of surreal intrigue, it turns out that Leonard is not fully in control of his reality – or, perhaps, reality is not fully in control of Leonard. For, our wannabe rap legend believes his boss is a blurry-faced green man that only he can see. Moreover, all those who inhabit roles of authority and surveillance are also seen to be occupied by a blurry-faced green man.

This twist in the plot opens up rich seams of conspiracy, collusion and confusion. Reality and fantasy become as blurred as the Martian physiognomies and, even though Leonard manages to shake off the evil job, his life threatens to go out of control – which can only be a good thing in a world governed by surveillance and systems.

Tempering the madcap whirl of digressions and torrid streams of consciousness is a lot of humour. Scott works biting satire into every stage of the story, whether on the production line, deep inside Leonard’s interior monologues or while trying to make (sort of) sense of the malevolent intentions of Big Pharma boss Rich Bestard VIII.

Alienation or alien nation? This is what modern Britain sounds and feels like for the working classes in the post-industrial north.

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