One of the joys of reviewing on these pages is that every now and again you are sent a novel about which you know nothing, and it doesn’t just take you by surprise but makes you rethink what fiction can do. That was the case with Alan Trotter’s Muscle and even having read it twice now I’m still not entirely sure what it is or exactly what I have read. Is it Samuel Beckett meets Mickey Spillane? Is it noir as imagined by Neil Gaiman? Is it Pinter and Bukowski having a tear up in a car park? It’s all of those things and so much more.
Usually I wouldn’t mention the cover of a novel, but Muscle’s demands comment. As you can see above it’s the back of a man so large he can’t quite fit, with a shiv held menacingly in his mighty fist. It’s an image which not only suggests the violence and visceral nature of the narrative you are about to encounter, but also hints at what else awaits. Trotter brings so many ideas, themes and influences to bear that mere pages struggle to contain them. In every sense this is a novel which is packing.
From the beginning, where two men calmly contemplate the death they have just witnessed, with a curious detachment similar to Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon considering a carrot, it is clear that this is not going to be a straightforward undertaking. The cover may scream pulp fiction, but the content is more Pulp Fiction, with conversations about minutiae, apparent McGuffins, graphic violence, and a language rich, ripe, and rooted in noir, all of which can also be found in Tarantino’s masterpiece.
Certainly the central characters of Box and ____ (who we have to assume is the titular ‘Muscle’, but who is never named) bring to mind that film’s Jules and Vincent, the philosophising hard men who menace with aforethought, but there are also heavy traces of other dangerous double acts, such as the aforementioned Neil Gaiman’s Vandemar and Croup from Neverwhere, or Goldberg and McCann from Pinter’s The Birthday Party. I’m sure you’ll come up with your own points of reference as that is one of Muscle’s many joys – it’s packed so full of allusions, none of which are overt, that it’s entirely possible – or rather entirely likely – you could ask ten different readers and they would all report back something new and diverse.
From the beginning Muscle appears firmly rooted in the tradition of hard-boiled fiction. This is a world of private eyes and late-night poker, broken hands and black hearts, which will be familiar to those acquainted with Sam Spade or Mike Hammer. However, as matters progress it places one foot firmly in the realm of science fiction. Box becomes obsessed with the ‘Amazing Stories’ and ‘Weird Tales’ written by the enigmatic Holcomb.
During episodes which could be dreams, or they could be visions, but definitely influenced by what he has read, Box begins to contemplate some extreme ideas, including the possibility of time travel. His desire for an object (“The Spherical Oracle”) grows stronger as he imbues it with a significance that is difficult to understand. It is similar to the unspecified pipes in which Patrick Doyle places his hopes of a happy future life in James Kelman’s A Dissafection. I then started to read other Kelman references in Muscle, but began to wonder if that said more about me than Alan Trotter. And of course it does.
Because that is at the heart of what makes Muscle such a fascinating and involving read. By taking familiar themes, tropes, styles and genres Trotter holds a mirror up to the reader and forces them to consider their own cultural history, and what that brings to any interpretation of what they are reading. It’s almost interactive, and there was more than one time when I imagined I was _____, or at least filled in the blanks myself. Muscle is a fantasy novel, just not in the way you may think.
As Muscle progresses Box’s fantasies begin to morph into an unnerving, and intricate, reality. As with many noir narratives, when a happy ending is even hinted at you know things are about to take a turn for the worse. Through all of this it becomes clear that Trotter is examining not only the evil that men do, but their reasons for doing it. There is greed, pride, lust and many other deadly sins on show, but there is also boredom and frustration. Box and ____ do a lot of killing, and that includes time, waiting for their next assignation which often never comes. It’s no wonder that they embrace their work as it is at least a living.
I often write notes as I read through a book which I’m going to review and the final one I had for Muscle simply said, “Begin Again”, and that’s exactly what I did. The second time around I read deeper and got more than I had the first time, and different than I got the first time. You’ll get back from Muscle as much as you are willing to put in, but effort on your part is required and so it should be. Alan Trotter has written a novel for people who are in love with fiction, who are in love with reading, and if that applies to you then you are in for a rare treat.