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Escape from reality: How to Survive Everything, by Ewan Morrison, reviewed

27 March 2021

9:00 AM

27 March 2021

9:00 AM

How to Survive Everything Ewan Morrison

Contraband, pp.358, 9.99

Ewan Morrison is an intellectually nimble writer with a penchant for provocation. His work has included the novels, Distance, Ménage and Swung, which looked at the conditions of desire, normality and love under capitalism, and a hybrid collection of essays, reportage and fiction, Tales From the Mall.

This new novel forms the final part of a loose trilogy, which is concerned with various forms of eccentric utopias. Close Your Eyes involved a spiritual commune with strict rules; Nina X was an uplifting book about a young woman freed from a Maoist cult and bemused by modernity. How to Survive Everything is narrated by teenage Haley, who has been abducted, along with her brother, by her father, a man convinced that a pandemic is imminent and who has made his own ‘prepper’ hidden retreat. I don’t consider it a spoiler to say that things are not rosy in this sequestered escape from the world either.

Morrison presents the novel as Haley’s own guide to survivalist thinking, with ironic (or, horribly, not ironic) instructions, such as ‘conflict avoidance does not avoid conflict’, ‘how to confirm the symptoms of necrosis’ and ‘protect the young from the truth’. The novel’s ingenuity, however, is in keeping the reader on tiptoes. Is Haley’s father paranoid, or has there really been an apocalyptic virus? Haley is both groomed and gaslighted as a victim of false consciousness and encouraged to become resilient and sceptical.

The funniest thing about this book is that it is funny. The oddball others in the secret facility, Haley freezing at the idea of any choice, her obese and aggravating kid brother and the ways in which divorce, depression and disaster can all be weaponised make this a skewed comedy of manners — as if The Good Lifehad been rewritten by George A. Romero.

Is this ‘too soon’? Morrison gets his defence in early: it was always too late. Non-fiction writers such as Mark O’Connell have looked seriously at the culture around survivalists, not least in terms of its defensive, macho nature; but it takes a novelist as humane and wry as Morrison to find in it a very weird redemption. The novel’s moral core comes with Haley wondering if the razor wire is designed to keep out or to keep in; but its horrible epiphany is that stone walls do not a prison make. We are trapped, regardless. But at least we’re laughing.

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