Tzum | Review: Thomas van Aalten – Suburb

A wasp plague like a pandemic

How do you write literature about the corona pandemic of recent years? A lot of writers have already tried it, but whether it has really resulted in any significant reflection over the last few years is the question. Maybe more distance is needed. Thomas van Aalten also dared. He did it with the necessary imagination that turns out spectacular. If you like his new novel suburb slams shut, you feel like you’ve been on a roller coaster ride. Unstable on your feet, you walk to a bench and then realize what you have been through: this grotesque story is nothing less than a distorting mirror of the exaggerated society at the time of the corona pandemic.

We meet Selma and Arthur, a somewhat worn out couple with an eighteen-year-old daughter who has just passed her final exams. Selma works as a teacher of French literature at the university, and Arthur is a planner for the municipality in a large Dutch city that is not mentioned by name. Not knowing what to do after graduation, daughter Claire takes a job at a local supermarket. The supermarket is located in the shopping center of the ‘Oud Babylon’ district, an old working-class neighborhood where today people mainly live with a different cultural background. Very different from Bomenwijk, with large detached houses where Claire lives with her parents. In the mall, Claire meets Anwar, a son of originally Moroccan parents who has not yet graduated and works as a dishwasher.

Selma, Arthur, Claire, and Anwar speak alternately in short chapters that alternate rapidly. For example, we follow Selma in the subway from her home to the university, where she is confronted by a slightly too fanatically older student who annoys her. One day she leaves a bag with an expensive dress in the subway that is found a week later, pissed and farted and marked with the text #NO. Arthur is working on a new construction project, two residential towers that will be called ‘New Babylon’, and visits a brothel in his spare time to have sex with his favorite Thai ladyboy. We follow Anwar with his friend Zohair in their confrontations with neighborhoods and strolling young people with names like ‘Cancer Hairdresser’, ‘Shaving Head’ and ‘Bamiblok’, who threaten Anwar not to screw up their turn. In addition, the tentative friendship between him and Claire grows and deepens throughout the story.

And then comes summer, and the wasps’ annual nuisances grow to violent proportions: A larger, more aggressive species has taken over the city.

The wasp species was a new, mutated version with several queens laying eggs in different periods (…) and, unlike congeners, felt exceptionally at home in a concrete, often urban environment.

The sting of this wasp is so poisonous that with multiple stings, people can go into a coma and even die. It is therefore important to ensure that you are not stung. When it turns out to be difficult to eradicate the wasps really well, the authorities’ advice and measures, such as protective clothing and staying home more often, follow. The resemblance to the corona pandemic is immediately clear. There is also a funny version of Willem Engel, complete with ponytail, who criticizes the exaggerated actions in talk shows and calls the wasp attack a natural reaction to our interaction with the earth. ‘We ask critical questions and explore the possibilities without immediately assuming everything.’ Meanwhile, while visiting his residential towers under construction, Arthur is stabbed so many times that he ends up in a hospital coma, and Anwar becomes involved in a drug deal resembling a macro-mafia.

From that moment on, the story picks up speed and the bizarre events spill over onto each other. Van Aalten knows how to write a spectacular novel that reflects the spirit of the times. He has already done that The guilty from 2011, when an ingenious terrorist attack was committed in Dubai. Nevertheless, he creates beautiful, true scenes that are full of life. Selma, Arthur, Claire and Anwar are all four interesting characters that you will love to follow. In that respect, the book is like a Netflix series: The four parts (spring, summer, fall, winter) end with a cliffhanger, with a strong emphasis on action and interaction. A cursory reading quickly makes you wonder what Van Aalten wants exactly with this story, which towards the end begins to take grotesque forms.

A look at the novel’s mottos will take you further. The first is lyrics by French musician Carpenter Brut from 2015, a dark, dystopian song with a scary clip. The second is a quote from the novel High rise by British author JG Ballard: ‘This is an environment built, not for humans, but for human absence.’ Ballard wrote a number of apocalyptic science fiction novels and High rise is about a similar luxurious tower block as in suburbwhere a class war breaks out. These mottos give the story a much more gloomy character: Have we not already entered a dystopian future? And what is civilization in it? ‘We are beasts. Give the people a crisis, and the genocide is there: well-dressed and fresh hairstyle, ‘Arthur thinks in his stunned state at the end of the novel.

Add to this the humor with which Van Aalten tells his story and the many strong characteristics of people and contemporary phenomena, and the conclusion is clear: suburb is a successful parody of our exaggerated society that will eventually make you laugh.

Martijn Nicholas

Thomas van Aalten – suburb† Podiet, Amsterdam. 416 pages. € 22.99.


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