A Quick Review - Sketch of a Last Day by Will Varley
Life is a meaningless drudge, punctuated by corporate greed and mob-mentality apathy. That is the approximated theme of dystopian novella Sketch of a Last Day by Will Varley, which tells the story of a nameless narrator as he is chosen by the state to die following a slow-but-lethal injection.
The book’s 11 short chapters stitch together an unavoidably bleak backdrop – dominated by the sickening feeling that the protagonist really should see his mother for the final time – but what captivated this reader is the love story between our unnamed central character and the equally nameless love interest.
She is ‘quite short, with big eyes and slightly dark skin.’
Thankfully we are saved a further description of any other assets – looking at you, Stephen
King - and instead, Varley explores the two characters’ desperate relationship. They cling to each other like Titanic survivors; their conversation is stilted and often distant, but they are connected:
‘“Where are you going?” she asked, following me.
“I want to get a drink.”
“Can I come?”’
They are connected because nobody in the world feels as lonely as they do, as lost as they do and as scared as is inevitable with impending death.
But the narrator of Varley’s story lets us in on a secret: the world is filled with lonely and lost people, trying to take comfort in the nine to five veneer of a sugared society, and feeling disenfranchised by an image culture that knows the price of everything, without any reason for actually wanting it.
Those selected - or volunteering (details of the process are kept just out of reach) - for the lethal injection are given what we might think of as a substantial sum of money, however, with death just 24 hours away, the gesture exposes the absurdity of value placed on money. This theme is explored repeatedly, for example, by the love interest who wants to buy back a beloved dress from a pawnbroker. The pawnbroker attempts to charge an extortionately higher price for it, but the unnamed lady doesn’t bat an eyelid. Instead, she showers him with money, literally. It is an event that soberly reveals his greed:
‘The pawnbroker, bewildered and sheepish, stared over his money-laden inventory. The guilt of a thousand empires welled up behind his eyes and began rolling down his cheeks, with no comfort to stop them. The pawnbroker saw his money, sprawled across the room, and began to weep. It could offer him no advice, nurse him with no home and mother him with no love. Everything he had ever longed for was empty, everything he had ever feared was in his hands. His paradise was strewn out in front of him, and he didn’t want it.’
Alongside the uncomfortably thought-provoking themes, the imagery used throughout the novella is out-of-the-box and strange. For example, the scene-setting for when our protagonist receives the notification of his upcoming death:
‘It was the kind of evening when ambulances get called a few doors down the road, and you never find out why.’
The letter of extermination itself lands on a pile of takeaway menus and government propaganda. We are made to believe that selection for death is an everyday occurrence, mentioned only in passing as a sad fact of life. In fact, our protagonist writes that he ‘almost ignored it’.
Of course, when it comes to imagery and language, we shouldn’t be surprised by the quality – and often strangeness – of Varley’s writing. He is, after all, an accomplished singer songwriter with five studio albums to his name.
‘The sky was monochrome and bleak as it is on October Mondays, with pregnant clouds making a thick blanket above the square.’
It is unclear whether Will Varley intends to release further works of prose. Much of his audience is simply hoping for another album and more live shows. (Will Varley’s live performances are phenomenal: full of off-the-cuff jokes that make each show feel unique;and each song is sung with such emotional energy that it seems impossible that they aren’t directed directly to you.)
For any fans of dystopian fiction, Sketch of a Last Day is faithful to the genre, well-written and mildly uncomfortable throughout.
When in stock, you can find Sketch of a Last Day on Will Varley’s website here.
Listen to his latest release – Live at Shepherd’s Bush Empire – on Spotify or wherever you get your music.
For alternative listening, Yelrav Mailliw is Varley’s alter-ego, producing emotive
Looking for something else to read? Consider Fredrik Backman's A Man Called Ove