TagNicky Singer

Keeping it fresh

What does it take to make an old trope feel fresh? I’m prompted to ask this question by the return to British screens of Misfits, which is currently getting a repeat showing on Channel 4 on Saturday nights. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, Misfits is about a group of young offenders who get caught in a storm that grants them (and others) super-powers. The thing is, it’s a much more interesting programme than it sounds; for all that it might seemingly be based on a hackneyed trope, there’s a freshness to it. One reason for this is that, I think, Misfits is determined to stay true to the context of its story.

To explain what I mean, I’ll first take a step back and look at the example of Heroes, another show about ‘ordinary’ people with super-powers (there’s a further similarity in that characters’ abilities were initially related to their personalities and/or circumstances in some way). Heroes was essentially a comic book on the telly, and it came to the television medium with various aspects (both good and bad) of superhero comics – cliffhangers, alternative timelines, and so on. This worked well enough  in season one: the aesthetics were fresh, and I think there were some smart ideas – for example: giving such a visible power as flight to the character who’s the most public figure; giving regeneration to a teenage girl, who’s at probably the only time in her life when such a power would be unwelcome, because it’s a mark of difference. But Heroes went off the boil after that, for a variety of reasons, but including that it got wrapped up in its own continuity and moved too far away from what (I think) made it distinctive. It couldn’t be about ordinary people with remarkable abilities any more, not when some of its characters became so mighty-powered, and not when such extraordinary plots were being hatched.

Misfits strikes me as different. At least in its first season (the second has yet to air), every fantastical happening is filtered through the prism of inner-city teenagers with ASBOs; the idea of ‘super-powers’ is put into the service of a story about that kind of people in that kind of place – and this is what gives the programme its freshness. It’s the same thing that made the ending of Ashes to Ashes satisfy, even though the concept (a purgatory for coppers) wasn’t particularly surprising – it worked because the 1980s, police-procedural aesthetic remained intact throughout.

I’ve seen a similar effect at work in books. There are times I’ve found myself abandoning series of supernatural thriller/detections, because I felt they were relying too much on their built-up continuity to generate drama, instead of the root idea that made them interesting to me in the first place. But, just recently, I read The Radleys by Matt Haig, which is a vampire story with that sense of freshness. And, again, that freshness comes less from the concept – a middle-class family of abstaining vampires trying to get on with life – than the way Haig keeps the theme of ‘middle-class family travails’ at centre-stage, and deploys the vampire trope through that theme.

I’m coming to think that even the most venerable of tropes can be revitalised if integrated thoroughly enough with a particular setting or aesthetic. I wondered if any new takes were possible on the Arthurian mythos; and then, last year, I read Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew, which places aspects of that mythos in a story about feuding street gangs. It’s not fantastical as such, but it uses the significance of Arthurian names and icons for part of its effect, transforming them in the process – and that runs to the very heart of the novel.

This post has tried to put into words some thoughts that I’ve been mulling over for a while. I guess I can sum them up by saying: one way to make a trope fresh is to place it in a different context, and make it serve that context. The results can be interesting.

Knight Crew (2009) by Nicky Singer

Just when you think there are no new twists to be found on the Arthurian mythos, along comes Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew, which takes place among feuding street gangs in a contemporary British city.

Our narrator is Art who, along with his hot-headed brother Mordec, is a member of the (mostly mixed-race) Knight Crew, rival gang to the (white) Saxons. Tensions escalate between the two gangs when, in the heat of a fight, Art fatally stabs a member of the Saxons – but it’s OG, the leader of the Knight Crew who ends up being held by the police, leaving a power vacuum. Myrtle, the strange old ‘baglady without a bag’, has prophesied that one day, Art will become ‘king’ – and, in due course, he does. But if Art wants to find happiness with his girl, Quin, he’ll have to deal with Mordec’s ambitions; Lance, the dashing white knight who later appears on the scene; and the Saxons, who are out for revenge…

Let’s be clear at the start that Knight Crew is not an Arthurian fantasy – it’s not a case of gangs throwing magic at each other, or anything like that (the only ‘spells’ in the book are periods of imprisonment). Rather, the purpose of the Arthurian references is to dictate the shape of the book. This goes far beyond superficial naming, and into the heart of the issues with which Singer is concerned (for example, knives gain a similar significance to the Crew as Excalibur has as a symbol of Arthur), not to mention the trajectory of the plot (there are signals throughout that all ends in tragedy; this point is probably laboured too much, but still I didn’t foresee what actually happens).

The Arthurian elements also give the story something of a timeless quality – not entirely so, as we’re recognisably in contemporary Britain; but there’s a sense that Knight Crew takes place in its own little world. The city in which it is set is not named – it’s probably London, but the lack of any recognisable place names generates a feel of somewhere to one side of reality. This works well with the bold strokes of the plot; but I was also going to say that it acts as a cushion, even if only in a small way, from the harsh reality of the gangs’ world.

Ah, but it’s not that simple, because the life of the gangs creates its own sense of being in a discrete bubble of reality. The vast majority of the book takes place ‘inside’ the Knight Crew: when the plot intersects with life outside, it is like stepping into another world. One of the key themes of Knight Crew is the power of words to make change, to shape reality; and we see this very clearly in the book – the Crew’s street argot is a way in which they structure their identity, but it proves inadequate for Art as he struggles to come to terms with what he has done: ‘murdered is not the same as merked [street slang for killing]. It’s more serious. More dreadful.’ The contrast between the street language Art uses in dialogue and his more conventional narrative voice is symbolic of the emotional transformation he undergoes over the course of the novel.

Art himself is a pleasingly rounded character, very much a flawed hero. He recognises that he has done wrong, and does his best to change, but never becomes squeaky-clean (he’s not above petty jealousy of Lance, for example). Not all of the characterisation is as sharp, which is fine to an extent (the Knight Crew are all about action, not reflection), but it does leave some of the minor characters hard to tell apart.

I haven’t really mentioned the prose yet; and I should, because Singer writes some beautiful passages – such as this expression of the burgeoning love between Art and Quin [edited slightly to avoid a spoiler]:

I took her then, took her in my arms and pressed my lips over hers as if I could take some of that sorrow and that joy in mouth. She gave herself to me, folded into me, all arms and softness and wanting and no division at all, and that lit something in both of us and we were mad and passionate for a while, tumbling on the earth beside the canal…and under the stars…

I also haven’t gone into much detail about the plot, and don’t really feel a need to. It seems to me that the details of Knight Crew’s plot are less important than its broader arcs; after all, the book draws on one of the most fundamental of all British stories, a story which deals in archetypes. Nicky Singer has brought together the old and new to craft a fable that demonstrates the enduring relevance of even the most apparently well-worn legends, whilst asking questions about the world in which we live today.

***

I understand that Knight Crew is currently being adapted into an opera, to be staged next year. Now, I don’t pretend to know anything about opera, but I can see this working well; it’s the kind of story that could be told well in song. It’ll be interesting to see the results, anyway.

© 2019 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: