H igh Life, British writer Matthew Stokoe’s second novel, may be the hardest-to-stomach work of narrative fiction ever created. I know of nothing to compare it to except Stokoe’s first novel, Cows, which is fully its own conversation. If you’ve never read him, you’re either missing out or doing yourself a favor.
The intestine-tightening disgustingness of Stokoe’s work is not everything—he’s an immensely compassionate and thoughtful writer—but no discussion of what he does can overlook this aspect. A cursory inventory of scenes in High Life should suffice: there’s the jackhammer-snuff scene, the anal-crowbar scene, the speculum-pissing scene, the mouth-shitting and genital-vomiting scenes, the kidney-removal-and-masturbation scene, the corpse-double-teaming scene, the dog-evisceration scene, and a thousand varieties of incest, morgue malfeasance, and homemade porn featuring both voluntary and involuntary actors.
Our protagonist, Hollywood hanger-on Jack, roams like a doomed and venal Orpheus through the Los Angeles underworld in which these ungodly acts play out, nominally in search of his wife’s murderer. When he first sets out, there’s not much to him beyond stagnant celebrity worship and a desperation to flee the dreary life in which he’s ended up. As he puts it, “What I wanted from her death was a reason to move in a world where the usual social obediences didn’t apply”—in other words, to descend into hell on earth and find out what going down there calls up in him.
All noir is about exploration, driven by a fundamental if jaded interest in the world, but most noir skews toward mystery, taking up the search for a specific truth: solving a crime, uncovering a disguised identity, retrieving stolen money. This assumes a darkness that can ebb and flow, concealing clues that can be drawn into the light by a detective who plunges in expecting to climb back out. High Life has a very different take on noir, one arguably closer to horror or to the morbid rant: it’s not about dispelling darkness; it’s about establishing that life itself is darkness. This is the general truth that blots out all specific ones.
In this sense, “true noir”—as Ken Bruen calls High Life on the cover of the 2002 edition—is pointless. It’s a genre in which descent is the only path, followed only for its own sake, with no surprises at the end. But it’s also honest: it’s a genre in which the detective has his eyes open all the way, one more streetwalker in the night’s great and defenseless “trough of flesh.” Jack, who begins his descent as a witness and becomes an increasingly willing participant, is motivated only by his own intrinsic badness and desire for experience. In his determination to go all the way down, though, he’s courageous as well, even heroic.
As his quest gains momentum and he crosses one line after another, he discovers there’s nothing he can’t do, or doesn’t want to do, and that there’s nothing reality can’t accommodate. It’s by externalizing his inmost depravities, participating in the world rather than daydreaming about it, that he takes shape as a character. (“Smell that?” asks Ryan, a wacko cop who serves as Jack’s demonic guide. “That’s the smell of what’s inside you, boy. All the stuff you want to do but don’t.”) For his part, Stokoe keeps the prose lucid and steady, making each scene fully real and integrated into the sprawl of the city, so that High Life is never dismissible as the product of a fevered imagination running off the rails. Jack and his increasingly obscene exploits remain in ultra sharp focus, with no intellectualizing or shadowing at the edges, and both grow only more vivid the darker they get.
Stokoe’s noir is true noir because Jack’s behavior is aberrant but his character is not: his exploits speak to the aberration in all of us, to the unrealized desire to give it shape through action in order to know what it looks and feels like. True noir is about what’s always true, those evils that define the world, not those that distort it. Reflecting on how his transgressions “forced me to recognize things about myself,” Jack concludes, “Some people might say those kind of things shouldn’t be recognized… but I figure if they’re in there, ignoring them won’t change the person you are.”
Even more than that: ignoring them will prevent you from becoming the person you are. If Jack’s time in hell teaches him—and us—anything, it’s that crawling through the bottom is a real means of transcending life’s boredom and shapelessness. It’s soaring through the top that can never be more than a fantasy.