Review of the Glasgow performance of "The Sentence" by Alastair Fruish
Yesterday afternoon I sat on stage for four hours reading a book from start to finish. There were five readers in total and we each took turns taking over from the previous performer in a semi-random order, overlapping each other and changing the pace and tone as the moment took us. Like all good literature it was a challenging, but mesmeric and, at times, profound experience. Sometimes it was funny, sometimes sad, sometimes horrific, sometimes beautiful.
The book was The Sentence by Alastair Fruish.
The Sentence is a single sentence. But that sentence lasts for over one hundred pages. With no punctuation (except the final, triumphant full stop). And every word is one syllable. The Sentence is the story of a prison sentence. A prison sentence in which the authorities inject a drug into a prisoner’s blood - a futuristic drug which makes every second last for months in your mind. The story itself takes place over a single second of Earth-time inside the warped mind of a tortured prisoner.
In a word - ooft.
The plot is difficult to delineate, and at times during reading one becomes lost in the sound of the monosyllabic words which seem to divorce themselves from meaning and simply become incantations. But that’s ok. Because that’s half the point. Basically, though, it is about a prisoner in a post-climate-disaster future who has been given this ‘mind-expanding’ drug as punishment (or rehabilitation?) and how his mind enters a dreamscape of memory and desire. We learn of his tortured past, his lost daughter, his crimes and jailtime, the good times, and the bad, and the shockingly ugly.
It may be grim at times, but the novel also attempts to transcend this bleakness - the final monosyllable is that grand surrender: ‘love’.
I won’t give anything else away.
Monosyllablic is a term usually used as a pejorative to describe a person who is inarticulate. On the contrary, monosyllabic words tend to be the most evocative words, rooted as they are in the most concrete of actions and objects, and tending to be the oldest of all words. New terms in English tend to be hybrids and latinisations, moving away from the Germanic roots of the language which is more in touch with everyday life. Latin words and neologisms tend to be abstract or academic. Monosyllables tend to speak to everyone about things pure and true. The King James Bible is mostly monosyllabic - a work which has spoken to more in English-speaking Christendom than any other work of words.
The monosyllabic, anti-punctuation concept also interrogates how illiteracy and learning difficulties such as dyslexia and low concentration permeate prison populations, which no doubt accounts for part of the reason people find themselves sliding down the slippery slope from failure in school into such hellholes as the clink. The author, Fruish, himself is dyslexic and works as author in residence in prisons in England and so he understands first hand what a cipher of text on a page can do to your mind. I even felt the work gave an insight into what it would be like to be dyslexic or low in literacy, and then be faced with pages and pages of black symbols on paper and told: read. The readers on stage - myself a writer and English teacher, alongside two poets and two actors - people who you would expect to be experts at reading, all struggled at times to read fluently once or twice during the four hour recital. I think this actually added to the effect of getting into the mind of the prisoner tortured by his barrage of consciousness. The incessant and malicious logos of mind (forgive me for the pretentiousness of that one, I couldn’t resist).
Overall, it can be best described perhaps as a spell. The words wash over you and bamboozle your brain, perhaps mimicking the fried consciousness of an abused and fragile mind, the mind of your average ‘deplorable’, the stream of consciousness of a crim. It has literary echoes of the Bible, of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, of Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell, and of James Kelman’s How Late It Was How Late, and the dramatic effect of Beckett’s beguiling word-cascades in Not I and Play. All of these works play with the idea of fragmented consciousness and the word as spell. The Sentence deals with themes found in Jungian psychology, Marxist politics, and contemporary theories of neuroscience and high-tech dystopia. It investigates the idea published in Philosophy Now by Sue Roberts (Issue 102) about the possibility of 1000 year jail sentences using mind-altering technology, something which has also been a recent theme in popular culture such as in Black Mirror episode ‘White Christmas’. So how can this not be an officially released work!? If this was written in the 1920s by a flaneur living the high-life in Parisian society then no doubt it would be heralded as a ‘tour de force of the fragmented paralysis of modernity’. Sadly, in today’s consumer-driven market culture, no publishers take risks publishing cutting-edge and challenging works of literature. However, the fact that similar writers like James Kelman are still writing and winning prizes gives hope that a decent publisher will take the risk and put The Sentence out to the literati and it can win the appropriate prizes etc. and Fruish then can go back to working in obscurity and get famous years after his death.
Anyway, big thanks to Alastair Fruish, Daisy Eris Campbell, and David Blair for putting on the performance and Frances Thorburn, Gavin Mitchell, Cee Len, Liam McCormick and all the participatory audience members who gave us a mindwarping afternoon at The Space in Glasgow yesterday. Peace and love.
If you’re in London on the 25 March, pop into the British Library to view another performance.
Follow this link for more details: https://www.bl.uk/events/the-sentence