Shark: An interview with Leeds novelist Wes Brown
Conjured out of images of the back-end boozers and the murky pool halls of Leeds, Shark is a tale about your less-than-average Joe. Or, in this case, John. John Usher is many things – a Yorkshire man, a post-war veteran and certainly a drinker, but what he also embodies is the kind of deeply flawed protagonist we can’t help but be drawn to.
Shark is the debut novel from Leeds writer Wes Brown. As well as depicting the trials and tribulations of John’s post-war world, Brown also runs E-publishing company Dead Ink. In a time when the face of the written novel is continually changing, it is commendable that Brown has managed to find success for his story in both printed and digital form.
In many ways Shark is comparable to the Joyce’s Ulysses, depicting the fragmented thoughts and actions of one man, and using them to explore the weighty themes of class, masculinity and misogyny within his day-to-day existence.
To say Joyce was an inspiration for Brown wouldn’t be too far off the mark. “Joyce saw the epic in the every day, the circularities of history, the mythic prestige of our subconscious behind the simmering banalities,” said Brown. “He took the novel to a new plane of intimacy – sexually, artistically, and personally. He articulated the most private spheres of life and in doing so, added to our humanity. He’s a great starting point for a modern novelist.”
And so, taking inspiration from Joyce, Brown embarked on the story of John Usher – a disgraced soldier and violent deadbeat, attempting to reclaim himself from service in Iraq in an England that feels increasingly hostile. Usher attempts to fill the vacancies left by the trauma of war with a host of vices – mainly drunken jaunts and seedy sex. “Rather than see himself as a ’survivor,’ he tries his best to overcome his spiritual circumstances,” said Brown. “He imagines himself in heroic, action hero terms and finds his best consolation hustling people in his local pool hall.”
Brown has spoken before about his commitment to “writing completely uncensored,” which is certainly the case in Shark. Like Joyce’s preoccupation with masturbation and crude descriptions of the female anatomy, Brown doesn’t shy away from the explicit – looking the darker recesses of human nature right in the eye and giving them the finger.
While there are some clear themes in the novel, Shark is not restricted by one defining message. “Shark is about class, masculinity and multiculturalism. Sort of,” said Brown, indicating that his work can not be packed neatly into boxes. Instead, Brown concentrates on the plight of his protagonist, with his thoughts and actions depicted in real time.
Choosing his own town as the setting for Shark, Brown paints a gloomy picture of Leeds. As a former resident of Burley myself, I’m as intrigued by the text as I’m sure Dubliners are by Leopold Bloom’s drunken romps through their city’s streets. Like Joyce, Brown’s novel is defined by its sense of place as well as its characters. “There is an element of ‘Leedsness’ in the novel – which is more of an attitude than a setting,” said Brown. “We’re defiant, proud, insecure and underachieving. We simultaneously think we’re the best and the worst. We revel in Dirty Leeds, in being shit, in being disliked.”
Yet, in spite of setting emerging as a prominent feature in the novel, Brown suggests that this wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision. “All the material will subconsciously be arrived at from my knowledge of Leeds, but there wasn’t a conscious effort to write about Leeds, as write about what I could see,” said Brown. “The novel came from a recurring image of a man in a pool hall. I couldn’t see his face. He was wearing dark clothes and he was wounded, psychologically. I started trying to match the image with words, and a character began to appear, in a setting, with distinct characteristics.”
An embodiment of our disaffected society? Or perhaps a critique of the modern man? However you chose to interpret John Usher, as Brown’s parting remark of “he spends most of the novel trying not to be a dickhead” suggests, he is, perhaps, someone that we can relate to.