“At any given moment, I have no idea what’s true about any of us.”
The Arena of the Unwell is a gritty and exhilarating exploration of loneliness and longing, obsession and jealousy, queerness and male intimacy.
tw: self-harm & suicidal ideation
Our narrator is Noah, a 22-year-old gay man who lives in London. He works in a record shop, shares a place with his best friend, and spends most of his nights exploring North London’s indie music scene, getting increasingly drunk at venues and pubs. He’s seeing a counsellor but knows that his NHS allocated hours are running out and soon enough he will be left alone to cope with his debilitating self-hatred and depression. His two closest friends are not only together romantically but they have a band together, and Noah, feeling that he’s being left behind, spirals into self-destructiveness.
One night, after a venue with his favorite band, the enigmatic Smiling Politely turns awry, Noah seeks refuge outside where Dylan, a charismatic barman from Australia, comes to his aid.
When he starts getting to know Dylan, who is a couple of years older than him, he sees him as a cure to the overwhelming emptiness that has become increasingly hard to keep at bay. His infatuation with Dylan is complicated by the fact that Dylan is ‘straight’ and by his living arrangements: Dylan lives with Fraser, an incredibly mercurial man who doesn’t take kindly to Noah ‘inserting’ himself into their lives. Noah becomes entangled in their very toxic relationship but soon finds his attraction to Dylan shifting to Fraser. As Noah spends more of his time with them, getting drunk and high, neglecting his mental health and physical wellbeing, he finds himself alienating the people in his life. His friends try in vain to reach out but Noah is unwilling or unable to ‘lean’ on them. Eventually, his dishevelled appearance and tardiness get him in trouble at work, and Noah finds himself crashing at Dylan and Fraser’s place. Noah becomes wholly consumed by their relationship, to the point where he compromises himself to belong with them. He becomes a participant in the unhealthy cat-and-mouse dynamic between Dyland and Fraser. Their volatile relationship and living situation do not make for a good environment, as they seem to enable each other to engage in harmful behaviours.
Konemann renders with heart-wrenching lucidity Noah’s vulnerabilities, his yearning to fit in, to be loved and to belong. He also captures with brutal intensity Noah’s his anxiety, his self-hatred and his self-harming, without ever romanticising his spiralling mental health. We see how difficult it is for Noah to rid himself of the deep-seated and poisonous belief that he doesn’t matter, that he is worthless, a non-entity. We also see how this deeply affects him in his day-to-day life, and how careless he is with his own safety and wellbeing. Both Dylan and Fraser use him, ignoring all of the warning signs that point to Noah’s ‘unwellness’. They never really let Noah in, keeping him in the dark about the true nature of their relationship, nor are they honest about their intentions with him, hell, sometimes they do not even consider him at all. Once again Noah finds himself an outsider, a witness to the jealousies and manipulations running between Dylan and Fraser.
His alcohol and drug consumption lends a murky quality to many portions of his narration and further adds to the gritty atmosphere of the story. His unreliable, often unintentionally so. His self-deception becomes a dangerous coping mechanism, and he can survive only by ignoring his problems and current circumstances.
There is a sense of unease permeating much of the story, so I was never able to let my guard down, always worried about people’s nefarious intentions’ toward Noah or Noah’s own self-sabotaging. The author articulates with painful precision the anguish, desperation, and loneliness in Noah, and my heart really went out to him. I could really relate to him, and his conviction that he doesn’t really fit in with the queer community.
This story is less of a coming of age than a coming undone. The indie music scene serves as a backdrop to Konemann’s troubling character study, which really adds to the novel’s edgy atmosphere. The fraught and disconcerting relationship between Noah and these two older men brought to mind Barbara Vine’s urban tales of psychological suspense (The House of Stairs, Grasshopper). Like Vine, Konemann has given his narrative a very nostalgic vibe, one that doesn’t see the past through rose-tinted lenses, quite the contrary. I also appreciated the thorny exploration of queer desire, and how he underlines how dangerous it is to become wholly consumed by someone you love, to the point where you are cutting yourself off from everyone and everything else.
While music is an undeniable component in Noah’s narrative, Smiling Politely serve a rather underwhelming function in the story. Noah’s chapters are interrupted now and again by articles or snippets of interviews with two of the band’s members, Ryan and Claire, and these were kind of unnecessary. They would have made more sense if the band, or at least their music, would have played a bigger role in the story, but they don’t. I also would have liked Isaac to be given more page time, at least before Noah becomes wholly obsessed with Dylan/Fraser. The finale was slightly a bit too rushed, but I appreciated the realistic note things ended on.
I would definitely read more by Konemann and when I next feel like getting emotionally sucker-punched I will be giving this a re-read for sure. I loved Noah’s compelling voice (ragazzo mio !), the vivid descriptions (of often very grotty & sweaty places), and the realistic dialogues (from the small talk, to the banter and the arguments). Throughout the course of the story, Konemann presents his readers with an uncompromising interrogation of the contradicting and often obscure nature of love and desire. The jealousies, lies, manipulations, and small acts of cruelty add complex shades to his portrayal of love, affection, intimacy, and desire. While in many ways Noah’s narration is limited by his naïveté, his social commentary is interspersed by whip-smart observations and wry assessments that often serve as sources of levity. There are also moments of euphoria that starkly contrast against the novel’s darker themes.
I would definitely recommend this to fans of Caroline O’Donoghue’s work, as both Promising Young Women and Scenes of a Graphic Nature feature self-destructive main characters becoming entangled in unhealthy dynamics & toxic relationships. The gritty nostalgia in The Arena of the Unwell made me think of Elizabeth Hand, specifically Wylding Hall and Generation Loss.
Anyway, I inhaled this novel in less than 24 hours (it really served as a distraction to a particularly sh*tty shift). It was a gripping and heart-wrenching read, one that I won’t forget anytime soon.
My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ¼
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