CW: ABUSE, ADDICTION, ASSAULT (SEXUAL), DRUG USE, SELF-HARM, SUICIDE
Bad Ideas\Chemicals is a book for aliens.
Growing up, I often thought that I was an alien. Or maybe I just wished I were. Either way, it would have made everything so much easier. It would have explained why I never quite seemed to get the hang of The Rules. Why the humans seemed never to quite like or trust me. Why nothing they talked about made any damn sense. Why sometimes it was less irritating just to spend recess alone. Why this body always seemed just a bit 'off', as if it were a perfect disguise imperfectly grafted onto my true alien form, designed to keep me inconspicuous while I studied the population down here and waited for my ride home.
Cassandra Fish is waiting for her own ride home. She prepares for it eagerly, never removing the orange spacesuit she ordered off the Internet, and always taking care to arrive at the designated rendezvous point with plenty of time before the monthly lunar transfer window opens.
For now, Cassandra lives in the town of Goregree, Wales—the remnant of a failed experiment in urban planning and capitalist hubris, populated by bleak, nondescript buildings and their bleaker inhabitants. The preferred pastime of many of Goregree's residents is the consumption of GOTE, a destructive, hallucinogenic chemical derived from the toxic residue shed by the enormous beetles that infest the town.
Bad Ideas\Chemicals, written by Lloyd Markham, follows Cassandra and her friends over the course of a single night, as each grapples with their own traumatic history and seemingly empty future. It is perhaps best characterised as a slightly magical-realist dystopian satire of 21st century British neoliberalism; for all its more fantastical elements, this is a story with a very strong sense of place and time. A unique desperation pervades everything in Goregree—clinging like a film of mildew to the town's arrogantly optimistic historical architecture, and smothered under a layer of cheerful bureaucratic indifference. This is a portrait of the Welsh valleys—after the closure of the mines, and under austerity. Details like the Mercy Clinic for Assisted Dying, where young people on benefits receive mandatory "job placements" wherein they euthanise elderly and mentally ill patients, ring frighteningly true in an era of unprecedented cuts to the UK's National Health Service and welfare system. Taken solely on its merits as a satire, Bad Ideas\Chemicals is an important representation and critique of a particular moment in British culture.
However, what resonated with me the most—and, if I'm entirely honest, made it difficult to continue reading at certain points—were the novel's personal narratives, particularly that of Cassandra Fish. Bad Ideas\Chemicals is, at its heart, an account of what it is to be a freak. It portrays with painful honesty the many ways that society lets freaks know we're not welcome here. Two passages in particular do a remarkable job of portraying alienation. In the first, Cassandra—who is asexual and coded as neurodivergent—is interrogated about her sexual proclivities by Alice, a friend-of-a-friend, who is as outgoing and lascivious as Cassandra is withdrawn and disinterested.
'So tell me,' continues Alice. 'What's your angle?'
'You playing hard to get? Going for that androgynous-mystery-girl-sort-of-vibe? I mean, I've known you for nearly a year now and I've never quite figured out how much of the spacesuit thing is an act.'
Cassandra raises an eyebrow. She shuffles back an inch, her space boots making an audible squeak on the grungy floor.
'Hey,' says Alice, a bit of spit and vomit dribbling from the corner of her mouth. 'Don't take it like that. I don't mean it aggressively. I just want to be let in a bit. Who are you interested in? Is it one of the boys? Please don't tell me it's Billy. He's lovely but he's got issues.'
'Argh. Stop playing at being dense. Who do you want to fuck? Look, I won't tell a soul. Just talk to me. In all the time I've known you, you've barely said a word to me.'
'I don't really want to have sex with anyone, Alice.'
'Oh come on. I don't buy that at all. I mean, I don't blame you if no one around here floats your boat but surely—'
'You don't understand,' snaps Cassandra. 'Nothing floats my boat. My boat has never once floated for the entire time that I've been...'
Shortly thereafter, Cassandra's best friend Fox teases her about a man who is apparently attracted to her, and she replies sadly, 'I really, really wish humans would stop asking things from me that I can't give.'
For a long time, I had a very similar conversation on a semi-regular basis with friends, family members, even colleagues. They simply couldn't understand why I didn't just date someone, anyone. "You'll never find anyone if you don't start looking." I could never make them understand that there was no point in looking—that the people I was attracted to were so few and far between that I truly wasn't any more likely to find one if I started 'looking'. The only thing looking made probable was a bunch of endless, boring conversations with perfectly decent people I didn't want to spend another second with.
"But what about X, don't you like him?"
"Don't you think he's good-looking?"
"Objectively, yes he's aesthetically pleasing, but—"
"Well then what's wrong with him?"
"Nothing. I'm just not interested."
I could also never explain why this conversation always made me want to cry, and left me feeling emptier and more alone than my perpetually single status ever did.
Whereas Cassandra's conversation with Alice captures the quiet, invisible, day-to-day pain of alienation, the second passage that made me put the book down for a few moments captures a more shocking kind of pain—the kind that makes everything seem a bit surreal and removed for awhile, that you're never quite able to leave entirely behind.
Cassandra leads Mr Matthews across the fields, through the trees, to where she and Billy had only ten minutes before been eating their lunch in peaceful silence.
Everything seems to be moving slowly, as if she is a tiny insect for whom a day is a lifetime.
Billy is lying on the moist muddy ground, a bin bag over his head, his trousers and pants pulled down to reveal a flaccid penis and skinny thighs. From head to toe, he is splashed in a clear liquid she knows, from the smell, to be urine.
This is bullying as written from lived experience. It is not the vague allusion with which schoolyard abuses are typically handled, as if viewed through some lens of nostalgia by someone who has, at best, an academic understanding of what bullying means. This is visceral and immediate, and despite its sparseness of language, conveys exactly what it feels like to occupy the centre of such a moment. It is clear, too, that this moment does not exist in isolation; it follows Cassandra and her friends throughout the book, as they continue to grapple with their place in a hostilely indifferent society. And this, to me, is the central theme of the book: how do you survive in a world that has no place for you?
It is striking to me that feedback for Bad Ideas\Chemicals has thus far unanimously focused on its surreal satire and dark humour. By contrast, my impression upon finishing it was that it was both disturbingly real and terribly sad. I find myself wondering if this is a book that reads very, very differently to the humans and to the aliens.
Lloyd Markham was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, moving to and settling in Bridgend, south Wales when he was thirteen. He spent the rest of his teenage years miserable and strange and having bad nights out before undertaking a BA in Writing at Glamorgan followed by an MPhil. He enjoys noise music, Japanese animation and the documentaries of Adam Curtis. His favourite book is The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. These days he lives in Cardiff, operates synthesisers in a band called Deep Hum, and has less bad nights out. You can follow him on twitter at @lloyd_markham.
ALEX HAAGAARD is a disabled, nonbinary writer, artist and activist. They spend most of their time glitching around in dark space, but occasionally return to this universe to yell at people on Twitter.