Review: Cold Turkey by Carole Johnstone

Is it all that surprising the E-cigarette was invented in China? Or, at least, anywhere outside of the West? There was no technical barrier preventing western nations from fabricating such a device–essentially a cylinder with an atomizer in it–for perhaps as long as a century, and the medical and ethical impetus to do so since the middle decades of the twentieth century. I’d hazard this was a cultural blind spot.

Up until a decade ago, perhaps less, you were either a smoker or a non-smoker. The matter was binary, on-off like a light switch, and the idea there might be a third way, a solution to the tobacco question other than social pressure and corpses on packaging was beyond ludicrous, it was inconceivable.

The root of this blind spot over a secular medical issue, of course, lies in our Christian past (The sixteenth century playwright Christopher Marlowe is described as an ‘atheist and a tobacco user’ by one of his enemies). Smoking is a dangerous indulgence, a psychosocial descendent of sin, and it is impossible to simultaneously sin and suffer no consequence, or so the New Testament’s barnum would have it.

And now the e-cig comes along and–seemingly–destroys that paradigm. Its sudden appearance, like a bomb detonating, has left all of us- smokers, doctors, premises owners, tobacco companies and anti-smoking campaigners stumbling around in a sort of unnoted shell-shock. The one advantage of this terrible new beauty is we can gaze upon the recent past with fresh eyes.

COLD TURKEY FRONT AND BACK

Carole Johnstone’s novella Cold Turkey (Published by TTA press) is a useful tool toward that and indeed got me thinking in these terms in the first place. Despite Cold Turkey’s first edition being 2014 its story exists in the recent pre-vape world (The e-cig option never occurs to Raym, the nicotine addicted protagonist. Neither does anyone suggest the idea to him. I’m inclined to think Johnstone conceived and wrote the novella before vaping truly sunk into Britain’s consciousness).

“All Raym wants to do is give up smoking. So why is his entire life falling apart? Why are new mistakes and old terrors conspiring against him? Why is he being plagued by the very worst spectre from his childhood? And why does giving up suddenly – horrifyingly – feel much, much more like giving in?”

That’s the blurb on the back cover. But a glib, superficial description–an elevator pitch, as they say–might describe Cold Turkey as Nightmare On Elm Street meets Gregory’s Girl. In terms of ‘feel’ at least, those two movies are workable coordinates; a Goya-esque fever dream leaking into a Caledonian slice of life tale, one mostly set around a school.

I should mention here that TTA press and all its many organs (Interzone, Black Static etc) are the loudspeaker for regional Britain in terms of speculative short fiction, a feature that’s rarely pointed out let alone championed. You never see a Scottish council estate in the ‘big three’ magazines and it’s equally as rare in the (relatively) young turks of online publication. I’m probably over-generalising, but if not for TTA Britain may as well be another term for London, typically with dirigibles floating over it. Cold Turkey continues this publisher’s tendency for settings beyond the capital, indeed it maybe the very paragon of it.

I love the sense of place in Cold Turkey. I’ve walked through towns just like it’s setting, though not always Scottish, and I’ve walked the halls of schools like Glengower Primary, albeit shorter and with milk teeth.

The staff room scenes particularly stick in my mind; the aroma of weak tea, the morning telly, the pokey kitchenette, the jovial snark of its inhabitants. Johnstone has a wonderful talent for portraying a half dozen or more characters within a brief scene. She drops a whole cadre of teachers, technicians and janitors upon the reader within the first staff room scene and at no point did I find myself confused or backtracking. In fact I never even worried confusion might occur, such was my enjoyment and involvement in the chatter. Now I think of it those scenes possess a quality bizarrely similar to the Parthenon’s friezes, where a group of several figures are somehow carved from a mere two inch depth of stone.

I’ve rarely read as good a take on smoking, especially giving up. The fuming and hopelessness, the false self-promises and proclamations no one else believes, the half-genuine laughter at the Reaper’s scythe: it’s all there.

Most of all, Cold Turkey shows us the cognitive wall between nicotine addict and non-smoker. Christ-on-a-unicycle, that wall is annoying for all us on the smokier side of it, and the author does a good job of evoking the glassy-eyed amusement of non-smokers, of how slap-inviting their unconscious schtick is, without the text becoming irritating itself. Carole Johnstone has been there. That’s undeniable.

The novella’s bogeyman, Top Hat, works well as a metaphor, taking an hour of Raym’s life with each furtive cigarette and breaking him in dreams.

(Frightful, hyper-real dreams are a subcurrent within quit-culture. Those nicorette patches you can get? They pump nicotine into your veins, something your nervous system never has to contend with when asleep. It’s no game, pal. The box says ‘may experience disturbed sleep’ when it should really say ‘may be chased through an abattoir labyrinth by broken bottle-wielding children’s TV presenters on account you owe Anubis three femurs and a dollar fifty’. Trust me on this)

Top Hat is a fine antagonist, spike-toothed and yellow-stained, his voice a bag of rusty Caledonian nails. He’s like Nick O’Teen (A supervillain of 80’s public health warnings who spent the majority of his time leaping from behind fire hydrants to offer kids cigarettes and is perhaps Superman’s most pitiful enemy) seen through a Clive Barkeresque lense. Whether TH is actually scary is a moot point. Creatures that talk, reason and give exposition almost never are (You’ll be hard pressed to get the time of day out of an MR James beastie for instance).

But perhaps that’s not the point. What TH is is an eloquent metaphor. Sooner or later, wheezing alone under a smoking shelter in a downpour, we all have an encounter with our own Top Hat. Why am I doing this? This is horrifying, this is insane.

It’s impossible to give Cold Turkey a rating in any conventional sense. I suspect it will speak to you, or fail same, depending on whether your neurons scream for the smoky, filtered teat. If you’re a non-smoker you probably won’t understand what all the stressing and gnashing of teeth is all about. You may even find the main character contemptible from the outset. People have more sympathy for a smack head’s plight than that of a smoker’s, despite both cravings being similar in compulsion.

However, if you do smoke I can’t recommend this novella enough. I suspect the author set out with the intention of entertaining the smoker crowd (check out the dedication) and this smoker certainly appreciates it. Niche can be a very good thing; better to have twenty percent of readers think your work fantastic than a hundred per cent merely smile.

As for this critic I’m all E-cigs from now on. Then I’ll quit.

I swear.

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