Martin Hacklett is English. He lives in London. His father, who used to work on the Thames, has been unemployed for 15 years. His elder brother has been in and out of prison. School consisted of the usual encounters with bullies and institutional indifference, and now he’s working as a bicycle courier, weaving his way through the buildings that tower above him. Martin had a girlfriend, Kate, but they were going nowhere. Then, trapped in front of the television, he sees a documentary on parkour—the “sport” of negotiating objects in an urban setting, running as if through an obstacle course.
Free-running offers the possibility of excellence. It reunites him with Kate. It gives him the opportunity to move above those who habitually look down on him, and it allows him to interact physically with his city.
Derek Turner’s descriptions of London are one of the highlights of his latest novel, Displacement. The city becomes a character: old, vibrant, curled along its river, evoked in swift effective sentences creating precise and memorable images. The prose is a pleasure to read.
As is almost inevitable in a world of tweets, likes, and shares, where everyone is armed with a camera and an opinion, where significance and value are measured by the attention a person or act attracts, Martin becomes a minor celebrity. He becomes “The Leaper.” Turner’s story dramatizes the systemic problems facing the Hackletts and the danger of assuming there are simple solutions to them. The plot allows him to explore social issues but leave them open for the reader to consider. For Martin, his father, and his brother, the phrase “white male privilege” can only be ironic. They are the last English family in the aptly named Omdurman Crescent.
In Displacement, names are significant. Omdurman was a famous British victory in the heyday of the empire. Their house is named after Sir Francis Drake’s ship. However, the traditions these names reflect are no longer unambiguous. In the 21st century, the past has suddenly become a problem. It is intellectually fashionable to be guilty. The British have to deal with their empire. White Australians struggle with the ugly history of settlement and its legacy. Americans have started to argue over how to deal with the memory of their Civil War. It is to Turner’s credit that, in a short tale about a free-runner, he manages to be thought-provoking about difficult social issues without overloading his story.
Martin started at Sir John Hawkins primary school. Hawkins, an English hero, was instrumental in the defeat of the Armada in 1588. Without Hawkins, England would have become a province of the Spanish Empire. However, he made a fortune shipping slaves across the Atlantic. In 2006 someone claiming to be his descendant apologized, publicly, for his actions.
By the time Martin enters secondary school, he is already falling through the system. An aptitude for mathematics has disappeared, and all that remains is a love of the gym and an interest in poetry, which he keeps to himself. He starts at Samuel Pepys Comprehensive. The “comps” were a hard-won victory, providing educational opportunities for the children of parents who couldn’t afford private schools. They removed the evil of deciding a child’s future at the age of 11. Samuel Pepys was one of London’s most famous citizens, his diary a monumental literary tribute to the city. The school’s name is changed to Aspire! Academy, a name that represents the vacuous corporatespeak infecting modern education. Tradition, with its problems and complexity, is discarded for a bright and unconvincing future that leaves the Hackletts stranded.
The emptiness of Aspire! Academy’s name is dramatized when Martin and Kate discuss their futures. Kate announces that “Mr. Finn says I should think about the law, or business, or maybe politics. There’s nothing I can’t do, he said! More women needed everywhere, he said.”
Aspiring might be fashionable, but opportunities remain the privilege of those with the wealth, or the connections, or the support to pursue them. The English “had no need for interventions, because they had so many advantages as it was.” Kate becomes a nail technician.
When Martin becomes The Leaper, the press arrives in the form of Seb, self-styled first “conceptual arts correspondent.” There is a venerable British literary tradition of criticizing “do-gooders,” and Displacement, guilt free, belongs to it. This is, after all, Dickens’s city.
Unlike famous predecessors—journalists like Francis Mayhew who in the 19th century wrote about “The London Poor” to understand them and bring their plight to a wider audience—Seb’s motives are mixed. He is convinced the Hackletts need him. Turner uses Seb to criticize all those who are ideologically driven and not only have little understanding of people they think they are going to save, but never recognize them as human beings.
In his own mind, Seb’s journey to interview The Leaper is an anthropologist’s field trip into an exotically dangerous part of the city. He is armed with a prefabricated vocabulary that reflects his ideological certainties. Turner dramatizes how they prevent him from understanding the people he meets.
He admires Kate’s “authenticity,” while noting the cheapness of her clothes. She’s what he expects from “such people” from a “disadvantaged community.” He mocks her aspirations while admiring her legs. Martin’s father’s dislike of swearing in the house, especially in front of women, he dismisses as “absurdly sexist punctilio.” The Hackletts aren’t a family but an “evolutionary survival mechanism in a transgressive social system.” But Seb’s intellectual pomposities unravel. He wants Martin to be a “natural philosopher,” but feels threatened when the natural philosopher demonstrates his knowledge of modern poetry. Nothing in Seb’s tidy categories can cope with Martin’s elder brother.
As Seb finishes his field trip, the humans fade to material for phrase-making as those categories reassert themselves. Seb is not interested, or apologetic, when they find his article offensive. He’s labeled them “The Despised.” After all, they need him. His editor has applauded his phrases, nameless other people “really” like the article, and it has provoked thousands of tweets. What does bother him is that Martin laughed at his pompous writing.
Seb introduces Martin to a publisher, who asks The Leaper, now a marketable name, to write an introduction to a collection of poems called Outsider Iambics. It sounds like one of those dreary literary productions where the identity of the writers is more important than the writing, and owning the book demonstrates that the reader has all the appropriate sympathies. All three Hackletts agree that the poetry is bad.
But can free-running remain “free”? When Kate asks Martin to stop, he protests that, if he does, Seb and his publisher will lose interest in him. His dad is now proud of him; his brother is inspired, and besides, he still enjoys the activity. What was once his sole reason to “leap” has become the last and least important of them all.
Turner’s art in Displacement allows for the messy complexity of life. Lurking in the story is another awkward question: To what extent do the exploited collude in their exploitation? Displacement suggests that no matter how clever or gifted he is, because of where and when he was born, and no matter what he aspires to, Martin Hacklett will always fall short.
[Displacement, by Derek Turner (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform) 96 pp., $5.99]