“Maybe I wasn’t ready for calm, to lose myself in some quiet outpost in, say, South America. I still had ambition. And I didn’t think I was sleazy enough, or certainly ready enough to explore my baser self, like so many Western males before me, in South East Asia. I was going to forget Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia. For now. I was feeling strangely robust, both physically and mentally. Despite recent events, or perhaps because of certain incidents–all the tragedy and the suffering, precipitated, I could see it so clearly, by the failure of the infrastructure and monetary regulations, of society, of civilisation–I was feeling, in a way, immortal.”
Over a decade ago, I was standing in a shop listening to a middle-aged woman complaining about some food she’d bought for her cat. It was, she said, too hard, and she wanted a refund. The shop assistant tried to explain politely that dry cat food is, by its nature hard, small granules, and that the bag was empty except for a handful of pieces. Bored and more than a bit impatient, I realised that I was witnessing a scam. We’ve seen this sort of scenario repeatedly, but there was something different this time. The woman suddenly sprinkled the crumbs of the bag along the counter, and pulling out a claw hammer, she proceeded to pound the cat food into the counter to ‘demonstrate’ its texture.
Step away from the looney….
That memory came back loud and clear when I began reading Henry Sutton’s brilliantly wicked and nastily funny novel Get Me Out of Here, and we are first introduced to Matt Freeman, a thirty-something Londoner. The novel’s initial pages depict brand-obsessed Matt making a nuisance of himself as he tries to get a refund for a pair of glasses he no longer wants, and as it turns out, he’s damaged on purpose after spotting another pair he prefers in another shop:
These were by Lindberg too, but they were a titanium and plastic, or rather acetate mix, from a line they didn’t seem to stock in David Clulow, and much more like my trendy Oliver Peoples pair. They look fat and stylish enough, but appeared to have the practical and comfort factors I craved also. I could travel with these and play tennis with them, and go to meetings and for drinks and openings and dinners and parties. I could probably fuck in them. In short I felt I could happily live with them and very quickly I couldn’t get them out of my head and became more and more convinced that they were exactly what I wanted, and not the Lindberg rimless pair I’d already and rather rashly purchased, from a high-street chain in a mall too, which was why, when I was fiddling with them this morning, I possibly bent an arm back with more force than was strictly necessary. Though the lens did snap very easily. It could have happened when I was away, or at a meeting, or playing tennis. Who knows when and at what inconvenience.
The scene in the shop sets the stage for what’s to come in this explosively funny book. Matt is obsessive-compulsive and a pathological liar–a big talker with endless business plans and elaborate business trips that never go beyond the luggage purchasing stage. He acknowledges that he’s “always drawn to deprivation, corruption, instability,” and plans to move to North Korea based on the logic that there are “no fatties there.” As we see him careen through both the shopping experiences and the relationships in his life, we realise that he’s a petulant, demanding, endless consumer and a self-focused, shit boyfriend. But this is just the tip of a very nasty iceberg. Author Sutton subtly seeds information about Matt’s life, past and present, through casual references, and with Matt in charge of the unreliable narrative, we pick up the clues which add up to an alarming, violent reality. Why are the women in Matt’s life disappearing? Why does Matt feel the sudden need to paint his flat and just what is that dark substance under his finger nails?
Matt’s twisted logic is coloured by the fact he thinks he’s more intelligent than anyone else and that he’s unappreciated. In a way, both of those things are strangely true. He’s a sly and cunning predator who harps on about “what was wrong with humanity” and bemoans “the infringement of personal space” even as he stalks women with a preference for the “demure” female who has an air of unattainability. No wonder he only has one friend, Roger whose main interest in Matt is the swinging, lurid sex life that Matt imaginatively details just to feed Roger’s envy.
Another major figure in Matt’s life is his brother Sean, a successful sculptor who lives in Norway. Matt loathes Sean and is nauseated by his success and his happy family life. But as Matt faces a continuing “problem with liquidity” and ever dwindling possessions, Sean must be cultivated as a potential source for “investments.” Here’s Matt ranting about Sean and the boring wholesomeness of Norway:
There was a whiff of fascism about it all–the forced, mass jollity, dictated by my crazy brother. He’d have given Kim Jong-il a run for his money. And what exactly did Sean’s acceptance, his popularity, his authority in Norway say about that particularly strange little country? As far as I could tell it was an absurdly childish nation of non-dissenting Boy Scouts, and the odd busty Girl Guide. No one, it seemed, had ever fully matured. Everyone, by and large, still ran around in shorts with penknives holstered to their belts, getting ready to bed down for the night in creaky wooden huts, painted an unpleasant, ubiquitous scarlet.
In one of the best scenes in the book, he deliberately trashes suitcases after a rash purchase and then returns them:
So I thought I’d put the bag through its paces and test the strength of the handle and the play on the wheels and what would happen to the grey if it were subjected to a bit of tossing around in the yard. After all, this was probably mild compared to what the baggage handlers at Heathrow, or Pyongyang International for that matter, would subject the thing to–except they wouldn’t of course, be getting their hands on it, as it was only ever meant to be hand luggage. However, the hopelessly young sales assistant in Selfridges’ luggage department–what was his ambition in life? to front a boy band?–didn’t necessarily know that. If I’d had a gun I’d have shot the damn thing to see what it was really made of.
Get Me Out of Here is insanely entertaining and a compelling read. Just think of a demented, psychotic version of John Self (Money by Martin Amis) and you’ll just about have the feel of this book. Sutton crafts the narrative in such a way that Matt’s hyper-critical, twisted thoughts and sick rationalisations (and he tends to shape the stories he tells to suit the mood), are appallingly hilarious. The reader becomes Matt’s confidante as his slide into madness continues, and the various women Matt knows or spies on keep disappearing. As Matt’s life slips farther and farther out of control, he becomes increasingly dishevelled, racking up more and more ludicrous versions of events which he occasionally unloads with veiled aggression to anyone who represents ‘authority’ (the police, the television licensing men). Sutton doesn’t let up for a moment as he delves into the dark depths of this character, and there’s not a weak page or weak paragraph in this non-stop roller coaster ride of murder, mayhem and endless shopping.
This book is destined to be one of my Reads of the Year.