Ramblings On: Will Varley’s Sketch of a Last Day

An apathetic romance, dedicated to the lamentation of modern ‘culture’.

If one of the great artists of the past, a Da Vinci, a Michelangelo, or any creator you would care to name, was tasked with creating a small work of art, one to fit in the pocket, to raise the spirits of anyone who would desire it to do so and, after they had accepted, given only a small canvas, a brush and one tube of slate-grey paint, then they would have produced the canvas-based version to this text.

Sketch of a Last Day is almost unique in that, whilst forcing you to read on through the apathetic misery of the protagonist, you know that there can be no happy ending here. Much like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or even Orwell’s 1984, the sheer soul-crushing hopelessness of the narrative, of the stylised prose, is like a noose around your neck, dropping you deeper and deeper into the text, until it draws tight and, suddenly, the narrative is at an end.

Though it certainly fits into that execrably connoted format as the ‘Novella’, it is impossible to imagine it in any other way. A longer piece would drag, the horror of the dull world which Varley has created would suck any life out of the reader, and a shorter piece would fail to show of the talent, the unique mind of the writer to address a modern-dystopia.

For Dystopian fiction is certainly the shelf amongst which this title must be placed. There are events which, in any other work, would drive the protagonist, (if such a term can even be applied to the main character of this text), insane with grief, with anger or tortured sensibilities, apathy is the only product of the text. This technique continues to the reader with, even myself, failing to react to even the most horrific of ideas Varley has put forward as fact.

It says, unhidden and in a manner lacking in pretension, that ‘This is how the world is. This is how our culture will soon be’ and, though I might try, I cannot find it within myself to react in any way, save for agreement. The narrative should be shocking, the narrative should leave the reader disgusted and angry but, in fact, it leaves me empty. It leaves me with nothing more than a grey brush and a blank canvas, staring into the thick material, hoping for some answer, for some mystical saviour to leap out of the frame.

I cannot be certain that simple, experimental entertainment is not Varley’s driving force behind this text, but all the evidence I can see disagrees with this purpose. Instead, Sketch appears to be a product of compulsion, of modern misery and horror and an insight into modern culture which would put someone with a sociology degree to shame.

Varley is, as I am sure many of you are aware, less a singer/songwriter than a poet, and it is easy to see the crossover between these two in the text. The phrase ‘Advert Soundtracks’, the title of his first album, crops up here and there but, even where I lacking this knowledge, the imagery he creates, and stylised form of the text, firmly set this novella up as almost lyrical prose, absent in eventual meaning and lacking in joyful resolution.

It’s a goddamn masterpiece.

Sketch of a Last Day is available both in print and on eBook

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