Can a Town Be Too Safe? : The TFT Review of King of the Badgers by Phillip Hensher
King of the Badgers by Phillip Hensher is primarily a novel about privacy and surveillance, and how much of each is acceptable. The story is set mostly in the coastal village of Hanmouth, in Devon, a quiet estuary town in Britain with a motley cast of peculiar denizens. An over-zealous “Neighborhood Watch,” headed by the sniveling John Calvin, is slowly encroaching upon the privacy of the residents by filming as much of the residents lives as possible on closed circuit television cameras. John Calvin’s quest embodies what is ultimately an abbreviated study of Foucault’s idea of panopticism and the decentralization of surveillance; every citizen keeps an eye on the other.
Holding no real authority other than what he can conjure, Calvin promotes safety like it’s fascist propaganda; “You’ve got nothing to fear if you’ve done nothing wrong,” he says, “Even quite old ladies knew to say ‘CCTV’ now.” When a young girl named China is abducted and swarms of media descend on this retirement community by the sea, John Calvin’s lust for information reaches a fever pitch and the ensuing conflict provides the meat for the rest of the novel. In a wicked bit of irony, Hensher situates the viewpoint of the reader firmly in the central tower of Bentham’s notorious cylindrical prison, as the overbearing and caustic eye of the narrator becomes the most ruthless surveillance method in the book—the reader is privy to the town’s secrets, even as they try to hide them from each other. But the question is, can a town be too safe?
Hensher is of the mind that in order to preserve some semblance of privacy, a certain amount of collateral criminal damage must be endured. Or in other words, there is a reason why a Utopia won’t work. Though it may be premature to call Phillip Hensher’s latest novel of small town Britain prophetic, given the recent scandal involving Emperor Murdoch and Google, and though this idea is not necessarily new, Hensher’s approach to the topic of surveillance, tampering and general busy-body-ness hits refreshingly close to home. The reader never gets the sense that Hensher is making a prediction, like a futuristic satire a la Big Brother in 1984, and rather, that this sort of thing is happening everyday, in little towns all over Britain, and probably the world.
On top of all that, King of the Badgers is also about rampant drug fueled orgies, abused and poor children, and the endemic plague of mediocrity that has infected modern society as our desensitization to atrocity and violence has created a herd of animals where once sentient beings roamed. Hensher’s critique is biting and without remorse. As Hensher details the lives and thoughts of the residents of Hanmouth, a picture of dark intentions and less than wholesome goings on behind closed doors, begins to show like a malignant tumor beneath the flawless tan skin of the village. The owners of the artisinal cheese shop, Sam and Harry, host parties for a group calling themselves “the Bears,” which entail lengthy hours of sex with multiple partners, leather outfits, and gargantuan quantities of cocaine. The abducted girl China is locked in a basement and repeatedly raped by a Hanmouth resident who got lost on his way to the casting for the British Deliverance—how she got there is representative of some of the most egregious and despicable parenting ever documented. Family man, Kenyon, witnesses a random public shooting from the train window as he commutes back to Hanmouth from Paddington Station in London and wonders at the innate horror of the moment; that what was most “noteworthy to Kenyon, [was] that a train had managed its departure at the exact same moment, as if the shooting were no more than a trivial and irrelevant part of the station’s normal work.” Hensher’s largest jab here, just below the belt buckle, seems to be that these rather unwholesome events that are hard to watch on the page, have become commonplace, as real life instances of this type of human behavior can be found in the daily news (google Shannon Mathews for Hensher’s inspiration for China). Hensher delivers a seamless invective, which, delightfully, begins to make John Calvin’s formerly heinous surveillance seem almost a welcome deterrent to what is going on in the town. But as the book moves forward, it materializes that the CCTV is responsible for nothing save scratching up an old widow’s house paint, let alone keeping anyone safe, and Hanmouth is left to wonder if the real question here is if anything at all will ever make it safe to be alive?
Though Hensher’s prose isn’t exactly the flashiest or most inventive, he maintains a strict control of the narrative and commands the plot. The stories of the fifteen or so main characters all intertwine and drape across each other in true epic British style, though it never spirals out of control. And by the end of the novel there is left a tightly woven tapestry depicting a candid snapshot of what our society has become. Kenyon gets a job with the new “Defecit Unit” in the Treasury because of the “sticky situation” created by giving “such a lot of money to those awful bankers,” and a hefty bonus for taking the job. China is saved from her captor by a well-informed, septic tank repairman who heard she was missing on the television. And Sam and Harry don’t change, despite a cease and desist letter from John Calvin, realizing that the most wonderful thing about a Saturday night in is being alone; “that there was no one counting, or watching.”
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