M.J. Nicholls’ new novel Condemned to Cymru is Rabelaisian in every sense of the word: it’s gross, it’s droll, there’s sex and violence and jokes. It even affects the Rabelaisian flourish of an artificial structure—the story is mostly presented as one pathetic misanthrope’s alphabetized travelogue (of sorts) of Wales, written for a sinister Icelandic thinktank bent on world domination. And much like Rabelais, beneath all the playful language and grotesqueries is a story concerned with people, society, suffering, and justice (or the lack thereof).
A brief initial chapter sets the scene: in the near future, the aggressively aspirational ethos of Nordic living (hygge, market socialism, ruddy-cheeked statuesque Vikings enjoying outdoor winter sports) has been fully weaponized into a new imperial project for a catastrophe-ravaged world. Failed states are aggressively colonized and remade into little Icelands, affluent, prosperous, resplendent with new fjords. However, the selling of this New Icelandic vision requires careful curation—those who can’t project the youthful, vigorous beauty necessary for all utopias are shunned and kept hidden, relegated to basement offices or shipped off to far away war-torn lands. Like Wales.
Magnus, the antihero of this story, is one such undesirable. His pimples, pustules, boils, whelks, blisters, and blemishes have made him into a pariah, and for the crime of unattractiveness he has been sent to catalog and describe the towns and villages of war-ravaged Wales with an eye towards future Icelandic colonization and domination.
What follows, however, is far more than a travel itinerary. Rebelling against his exile, the bitter, vile, and cynical Magnus presents a stunningly useless account of his Welsh travels. His entries have little to do with anything, and include: false etymologies of tongue-twisting Welsh place names; brief misanthropic descriptions of Magnus’ feeling and opinions; sexual fantasies; his encounters with the giant mutated asses and elbows terrorizing the countryside (strongly suggestive of the old aphorism regarding the ability to tell them apart); excerpts from a counter-factual Alternative History of Wales; poems from the posthumously celebrated writer Barrie Bartmel’s magnum opus, Poems of a Poltroon; traumatic childhood memories; writing advice; long, rambling, discursive stories from locals; discussions of crime fiction and its dominance of the literary landscape; music criticism; and, most pungently, Magnus’ pining and lovelorn encomia to his erotic fixation, the unattainable and mysterious Helga Horsedòttir.
These occur as part of an alphabetical listing of Welsh towns; some are a single sentence, others stretch on and on for pages. There are repetitions and refrains and contradictions, and when read together a broad blackly humorous picture begins to come into focus of Magnus, his childhood, his life, his struggles and insecurities and perversities. Questions also arise from this list. Landscapes are not alphabetical, and so this travelogue could never actually represent an itinerary—what does this say about classification and taxonomy and the way transnational neoliberal ventures like the Húsavík Research Hive commodify place? If we could reconstruct a probable itinerary for Magnus from his achronological musings, would we begin to see a more structured narrative, his thoughts and experiences all in neat, ordered rows? This is the richness of these disjointed entries, the list as literature, a lesson learned first and best from Rabelais himself.
A final chapter sees Magnus, his abecedary completed and presumably submitted, back home just in time to experience a remarkable juxtaposition, the implications of which reorient the preceding chapters in a profound way. For all his posturing and misanthropy, the transformation at the end of Condemned to Cymru forces us to reconsider Magnus and his place in society, as well as the ultimate source of his suffering.
For all the stomach-churning descriptions of sebaceous discharge (and, to be clear: don’t read this book while eating) and the sour misanthropy of its main character, this book is a tremendous amount of fun, and even the bleakest parts have a core of playfulness to them. M.J. Nicholls has written a clever, surprising story, equal parts funny and despairing, sharp enough to keep you reading a literal alphabetical list of Welsh towns, parsing a tangled story overheard in a pub for deeper meanings, or trying to find the metacommentary behind a giant rampaging buttocks smashing the local sheep to smithereens.
Condemned to Cymru, by M.J. Nicholls. Montclair, New Jersey: Sagging Meniscus Press, May 2022. 214 pages. $20.00, paper.
Eric Williams is a writer living on the lithified remains of a Cretaceous Seaway in Austin, TX. His fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Protean, and Firmament, and he’s been nominated for a Pushcart and Best Small Fictions. His first book, Toadstones, is a collection of short stories firmly in the tradition of the weird tale. He has a website (geoliminal.com) and he’s @Geo_Liminal on Twitter.