"In tarot, the Fool begins the journey. With an innocent heart and a soul full of wonder he sets out on his wanderings, looking to explore the universe, delighting in all things, trusting in all things the Fool is a card of exploration, hope."
I love that line — which occurs some 300 pages deep in Claire North's new gut-punch of a novel, 84k. I love it because it is so goofy, so stilted in its language and heavy-handed in its significance. I love it because, in a lesser novel, it would've been a framing device — thrown down early to serve as guideposts for the early phases of the hero's journey. Mostly I love it because it is a complete lie. Let me tell you about North's world: the grimy, meticulously constructed and worrisomely believable dystopia she has created for 84k. It is ours, just a few years down the path. A near-future England gone bonkers with fiscal rationalism and austerity panic — a place where every vital service (cops, prisons, hospitals, trash pick-up) has been given over to the Company and every life has been assigned a monetary value. The Company is unnamed. The Company is everywhere. Once, it was a few companies, the kind that owned so many things, no one really knew what they owned anymore. Until, finally, it became just one Company that owned so much it might just as well have owned everything. Higher education, insurance, government — all of it was handed over, a bit at a time, to the Company in the name of efficiency and cost-saving. Ten thousand small surrenders. Liberty and morality given up a scrap at a time in the name of good governance and thrift until every single little thing is run on a paying basis and every single person is assigned a fluctuating value to society. A hard, actuarial price. And once all people have value, well, then so do all things that can be done to people.
Robbery? There's a cost for that. Clip someone with your car? There'll be a fee (more if the victim is rich or powerful, less if they are an immigrant, much less if they're illegal, homeless or jobless). Sexual assault? Well, that depends on who the victim was. And who the assaulter was, because a powerful man shouldn't pay as much for a slip of conscience as a useless one should for something he's just going to do again, right? Murder of a blue-collar woman with few prospects and a child already in the system? That'll run you 84k, including court costs and fees, with a 10% discount for prompt confession and payment.
Enter Theo (or the man currently called Theo), who works in the Criminal Audit Office — he's one of the people responsible for assessing the value of people and the cost of the things they do to each other. Theo is a schlumping, grey-suited office drone living joylessly, hopelessly in a rented room, bicycling to and from work, occasionally going to the cinema. But he's got secrets. And his primary goal in life is to pass through it completely unnoticed — to just be Theo, do his job, eventually die and be forgotten.
So, of course, the novel begins with him being noticed — by Dani Cumali, a girl he'd known before he became Theo and before his life slipped completely out of control. This meeting sets him off on his journey, and he is no Fool. He does not have an innocent heart or a soul full of wonder. He does not delight or trust in anything. And he has precious little in the way of hope. Theo is a fragile glass shell of normalcy, packed with ten pounds of vanilla pudding, with a very tiny, very powerful explosive buried in the center. And Dani Cumali is the thing that puts the match to his very long fuse.
"I'm going north to destroy a man," Theo says. "He killed my friends and took my daughter. He broke the country. He's why they're all dead."
But he says that later. Much. He says it on the canal, in a boat, to a woman (the one with the tarot cards) who has rescued him (kinda). But it's also in the beginning of the book, because 84k runs in two time streams simultaneously. Sometimes three. There's Theo figuring stuff out and then there's Theo doing things about what he has learned and then there's Theo remembering things from the past (mostly, how he became Theo and how the world became the world). But North handles it. With style and voice and a wicked grip that never lets the three-way plot spiral out of control. Long sections run in an almost stream-of-consciousness style, with words just rolling out of her. Others are surgically precise, describing the thousand small horrors of the world that Theo, Dani and the rest occupy. And all together they make a story that is rare — one of those that is so good I didn't want it to end, but so sad I didn't want to read another page. Rough, in other words. But lovely. Painted in shades of Fahrenheit 451, of Children of Men, Soylent Green and Brave New World.
North is walking a well-trod dystopian path, but seeing it through eyes round with newness and terror, bringing a kind of slinking, resentful humanity to every street corner and slum. There are no heroes here. No glorious moments of blood and fire. Just a man, his past, his daughter, and a slow-burning revolution that sparks across 450-some pages and leaves near every Fool broken and buried in its path.
All for the sake of 84k.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.