Richard Major, writing under the pseudonym Felix Culpepper, presents us with Begat: an entertainment for the Trump epoch. It is a moderately updated version of an oddly prescient short story written by Major in the autumn of 2015, when it still appeared Donald Trump would be no more than a vulgar footnote in the election of the first female president of the United States. In a matter of days, Major produced his own Frankenstein, modernised to focus on our obsession with ‘unreality’ (what Baudrillard would have called ‘hyperreality’), and our willingness to let our lives be guided by sensationalism rather than truth.
‘Begat’ chronicles the creation of a university mascot so monstrously vacuous, he soon comes to embody the most degraded aspects of British culture. First the students, and then the whole country, fill the non-entity that is Armilus Lightborne with the parts of themselves too vile to express personally. Their sordid projections turn him into an invincible national antihero, and within the space of a few months he has conquered social media, risen to a prominent Cabinet position, and declared nuclear war.
The birthplace of this awful phantasm is the University of the Mid-Pennines. Located as it is in a concrete-grey post-industrial British town, it provides a brilliantly dismal backdrop to this grim tale. It is a tradition of Gothic literature that the setting foreshadow the gruesome events to come, although in most examples there is some romantic tempestuousness – not so here. Culpepper’s apocalypse is borne of apathy and sloth, therefore the epicentre and its occupants are bereft of soul; their vices dull, their imaginations vanishingly tiny, beyond the pleasure they take in the lousy university tradition of creating their mascot.
“Moreover, they’d had the ill-fortune to be born at the fag-end of that lull between the fall of the Wall and the fall of the Towers. For twelve years, from 1989 to 2001, history passed through a Sabbath. Their parents had seen the age of tyranny fade into euphoria; they themselves had grown up with euphoria fading into surreality.”
The greatest evil in this short tale is apathy; an ailment most often ascribed to the millennial generation, but in truth a scourge on humanity since the dawn of civilisation. As Edward Burke said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” In this case, our story-teller is neither a man, nor good in any discernible way. She is the university registrar, and takes rather a childish delight in unnerving people with her cold indifference. Ursula’s level-headed analysis of the chaos that surrounds her makes her a good narrator; while at times the prose can feel clunky, and some of the youthful vernacular is somewhat inorganic, for the most part Begat is smoothly written and drily witty, with certain passages that are downright haunting. Unexpectedly visceral depictions of gore counter-balance artfully the almost metaphysical explanations of Armilus’s power and influence.
“In Lightborne’s bosom people felt the absolute peace of stupidity, greatest of all man-made forces. Stupidity laid its hand across their eyes until their restless neurons ceased to bound and painfully twitch, until a stillness came upon their brains and they sighed, snuggling around themselves, like a duvet, the tepid Abysm.”
At once a send-up of the era of post-irony we find ourselves in and a polemic against the culture of vapidity and benign celebrity which helped transport us here, Begat is an enjoyable and timely read. It is an entertaining blend of Gothic and modern literature, dragging Frankenstein into the Age of Trump while staying true to its macabre roots –at least as horrifying as reality, and twice as much fun!
Begat is available to buy now at http://www.indiebooks.co.uk