In February of last year we reviewed M.J. Nicholls’ The House Of Writers a novel concerned with writers, writing, and all that goes with it. In June his next, The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die, was published and was also reviewed on these pages where we said, “It is a love-letter to literature, but one which casts a delightfully cynical and often incredulous eye over all the hype and hoopla which surrounds the publishing industry.”
In the space of those two novels it felt that Nicholls had addressed his thoughts and concerns about being a writer, making his points in a pertinent and artistic manner which challenged the reader to consider their own relationship with literature. The question to ponder when approaching his latest, Scotland Before The Bomb, was where he was going to go next. As always with M.J.Nicholls the answer was never going to be straightforward.
This time around he turns a keen and coruscating eye on the state of the nation, or rather the states. Continuing to mix fantasy with reality, the premise of Scotland Before The Bomb is decidedly more towards the former, one hopes. In 2060 Scotland is destroyed by nuclear strikes from Luxembourg for reasons unknown, although it is possible some persistent trolling was to blame. As time passes the rest of the world wants to know more about Scotland’s history, especially the time between the independence referendum of 2014 and the country’s fatal destruction.
In that time Scotland not only achieved independence but became so enamoured of the idea that it continued to split further into individual nation states each with their own social, political and cultural systems. Scotland Before The Bomb promises to bring you “closer to understanding the enigma that was Scotland before the bomb.” Of course the writer/editor of this book is one M.J. Nicholls (writing in 2113). Who else?
If you haven’t read Nicholls before, and if the above paragraphs don’t make it clear, this is a writer who likes not only to play with the content of his books, but with the form itself. Having Scotland broken up into these fiefdoms dictates the structure, dividing the chapters into short stories which allows Nicholls full rein to turn his hand to different styles and literary devices. As a result we have journalistic reports, diary entries, Senryu poetry (often called human haiku), virtual tickertape, Q&A interviews, Trip Advisor reports, emails, transcripts, and even concrete poetry.
In doing so Nicholls tackles current obsessions and concerns, such as climate change, immigration, zero hour contracts, racism, fake news, nationhood, the failure of political systems, and so much more. While doing so he has Ross & Cromarty bankrupt itself to the World Bank, Edinburgh’s festival becomes permanent, the sovereign nation of Perth threatens to launch their own nuclear attack as a result of royal disharmony, Stirling is plagued by a dangerous and debilitating fog, Lothian’s skies are black with delivery drones, and Glasgow & Renfrew seem to exist only on the pages of a notebook of an unnamed “disillusioned fiction writer”, whose style seems strangely familiar.
Nicholls’ humour is really to the fore this time around. He revels in the absurd, both in the possibilities his writing allows and in the world in general – the former perfectly serving the latter. No other writer would have Nicholas Parsons enforcing a never-ending game of Just A Minute on the villagers of Braemar, or have Alasdair Gray as one of the earliest First Ministers of Scotland, post-independence – (except perhaps Mr Gray himself).
If his previous novels put a wry smile on your face, Scotland Before The Bomb will have you laughing out loud. At times it’s Jerry Seinfeld meets Laurence Sterne meets Kathy Acker, at others it’s like Samuel Beckett’s Alice in Wonderland, but it’s also impossible to define fully. To attempt to do so would be like writing a parody of M.J. Nicholls, something which I think he would admire and abhor in equal measure, so much so that I’m tempted to give it a go.
Scotland Before The Bomb is that rarest of literary beasts – a satirical, witty, and considered comic novel which is deadly serious at its core. Coming near the end of a varied and vibrant year for Scottish writing, Nicholls has delivered one of the very best examples of just why this is. While you’ll find your own touchstones it’s unlike any other novel you’ll have read before unless you have read M.J. Nicholls. And if you haven’t you absolutely should. He could just be your new favourite writer – you just don’t know it yet.