This review of Morrissey’s List of the Lost first appeared in The Sunday Business Post in October 2015. Fun fact: the paper’s lawyer read this piece before it went to press and remarked that it was worst review he’d read of anything, ever.
Steven Patrick Morrissey’s debut novel is so terrible – so galactically, monstrously awful – that it actually represents a kind of negative achievement. Where others have only tried, Morrissey has succeeded: he has written the worst novel ever published by a serious publisher. The bar has been set. It remains only to try to go lower. It won’t be easy. But nothing worth doing ever is.
You don’t, of course, scale these depths without at least some practice. Morrissey’s previous contribution to world literature, the mammoth Autobiography (2013), was a promising start – semi-comprehensible, bloated, and poorly written, it contained many tantalising hints of the anti-masterpiece to come. But for all its straining and searching, Autobiography had one serious flaw: it remained basically readable.
Now, mirabile dictu, Morrissey has solved this problem once and for all. In List of the Lost he throws off the shackles of comprehensibility and produces, at long last, a text so un- or non-readable that the reader can only watch and marvel as its gnarled and gnomic sentences stumble gracelessly by. “You would be offered a hearty shake of the javelin hand as expressions of possession of command from the four boys, each one fully developed into the blissful torment of their turnabout twentieth year – a pleasantly resolved marital union almost closed off in its camaraderie to the onlookers of the mookish greater world.” Indeed.
“The reader,” advised Kingsley Amis, “must never be made to pause without profit.” Well, “pausing without profit” precisely describes the line-by-line experience of reading List of the Lost. From the subliterate murk, some kind of story does – haltingly – emerge. It makes, of course, absolutely no sense. But an artist like Morrissey is always conscious of his obligations. He isn’t going to spoil the negative perfection of his novel by burdening it with anything so bathetic as a logical plot.
The protagonists – if that’s quite the word – are the four members of “America’s most sovereignly feared college relay team.” Their names are Ezra, Nails, Harri, and Justy: “deltoid deities” who live in “a pleasing suburb of the city of Boston” and are trained by a coach named Mr Rims (hmm) who has a “magnified-fish countenance.” The lads make a good team – as Morrissey assures us, “People magnetically attract others with similar weaknesses, as marriage rings the bell for the servile in hiding.” Okay then.
Ezra and the gang attend a retreat at a “sportsman’s haven” called Natura, where their “wet-knickered nerves” will be “weeded out.” Cavorting in the woods, they encounter an “elderly imp” who delivers a five-page monologue about American foreign policy. For no reason whatsoever (““Why did we do that?” asked Nails”), they kill the imp and run away. Deciding that they probably did the right thing (“The syphilis-itch of the hobo’s grope would be enough to repulse the softest composure”), the lads think no more about it. Some digressions follow. Alan Turing is mentioned; also Dick Cavett. As in the movie Final Destination, though with considerably less clarity and wit, people begin to die in unexpected ways. Eventually – and largely by guesswork – the reader deduces that the “elderly imp” was a paranormal creature of some description, and that the boys are now doomed to suffer its revenge. Then, its mysterious purposes apparently achieved, the text peters out on page 118.
All of this is, of course, sublimely, even majestically meaningless. But Morrissey’s greatest triumph – the brightest jewel in his artistic crown – must be his serenely sustained ignorance of the conventions of fictional narrative. His dialogue, for instance, is in italics throughout. This is an error that crops up in a lot of amateur prose – in prose, that is, written by people who have managed to read novels without noticing how they work, and who seem to think that dialogue needs some extra typographical oomph to distinguish it on the page. To advertise his novel so glaringly as the work of an amateur! Only a genius would even think of it.
You might think you have it in you to write an exceptionally bad novel. But without the effortless command of ignorance, ineptitude, and illogicality that Morrissey displays in List of the Lost, I’m afraid you don’t stand a chance. You’re better off leaving it to the amateurs; they always get to the bottom of the barrel in the end.