Liam Murray Bell’s second novel, The Busker, takes as its hero Rab Dillon, a Glasgow boy whose guitar might – just might – hold the key to his future. Rab’s journey, from the first thrills of success as a newly-signed political singer to his lowest ebb as a Brighton bum is conceptually solid. Drawing on the recent Occupy movement, and on the resurgence in political activism that has followed the 2008 crash, Bell’s novel is relevant, hard-hitting and certainly not lacking in grit.
When we meet Rab, he is “underneath the overhang of the promenade on Madeira Drive, eating the greasy kebab scraps [he] fought the seagulls for”. Bell’s novel opens with benzos, takeaways and a night of rough sleeping. Told in the first person and in flashback, The Busker is then sequentially divided into chapters that cover Rab’s early life in Glasgow, drinking in the woods behind his house; his moment of stardom, such as it is, in London, and his progress through Brighton in the present moment. This sort of structure allows for the opening up of Rab’s character, allowing the reader to glance at the rise and fall of Dillon’s career.
The Busker is, however, in many ways analogous to a difficult second album. Bell enters into the fertile – and crowded – sphere of books about young men who take drugs and enter a world of excess for which they are not equipped. There is an almost infinite number of novels on this topic and they tend to achieve success and longevity when they are immersive: the continually displacing experience of reading Trainspotting, for example, or the repetitions of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where time seems to stand still. Rab Dillon’s experience of excess is suitably squalid – lots of unpleasant company and lost nights – but it fails to be either immersive or suitably cautionary.
The major difficulty with Bell’s novel is engagement. Rab is a nice, but fairly indistinct protagonist: there is nothing hugely objectionable about him, but nor is there anything particularly sympathetic. Protest singers are usually leaders, crafting grand narratives of struggle and whipping up crowds. Bell attempts to buck this trend with Rab, creating instead the reluctant anti-hero. But whilst novels that focus on the ordinariness of a protagonist can be successful, they require an acute attention to detail and extremely delicate observation. Unfortunately, Bell’s ability to do that is impeded by the complex time-split plot: maintaining the three arcs of narrative progression means that Rab is broadly drawn and the result is a lukewarm protagonist.
What is fascinating about Bell’s novel is the absence of music. Of course, the novel was unlikely to come with a playlist (although that would have been nice), but the lack of concentration of Dillon’s music was interesting to note. He busks for a living, and treasures his guitar, but this is certainly an aspect of the novel that could support further investigation.
Bell’s prose is unflinching, masculine and readable. He is certainly an accomplished stylist, but he needs to make a decision about where his concentration lies: will he minutely attend to the human, or concentrate on issue-led fiction? Unfortunately, for a novel about a protest singer, the social issues Bell addresses do not sufficiently engage – and in concentrating on these, he misses an opportunity to perform the study of a life that otherwise descends into the forgettable.