Matthew Revert - Basal Ganglia

'Basal Ganglia - These reflections bother Rollo. There is always maintenance to be done. Reflection is a punishment. The antithesis of action and progress. Maintenance must be done.'

At a time when he could still remember, Rollo met Ingrid and they became teenage lovers, the two of them pitched against the rest of a hostile world which regarded them as outsiders. When the bullying became too much, they decided to escape to a sprawling underground pillow fort of their own making. Twenty-five years later, they still live in their subterranean home, which mirrors the structure of the human brain and requires constant upkeep and improvement. Now that their isolation from the world is complete and memory is lost (only Ingrid still remembers their names and writes secret letters to Rollo), their relationship is devoid of purpose, and they have grown distant: 'Both chose escape. Both chose an opposite direction. Two halves of one is still one and one.' What remains is the reassuring repetition of maintenance of the fort, a compulsion which gives Rollo a purpose and stops him from reflecting.To Rollo's mind, reflection invariably leads to anxiety: 'As obsession increases and ignorance screams, the less the numbers mean. Inquiry is replaced with projected outcomes of foreboding. Lack of understanding is a blank canvas on which to paint paranoia. Everything unknown is danger and harm.'

However, as Revert shows us, the human brain is far more complex than that. The eponymous basal ganglia may be instrumental in anxiety (Rollo and Ingrid are the basal ganglia of the title, the anxiety ravaging the brain), but of course this is much more than a book about anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, it is also a story about love, identity, and the fragility of human relationships, as becomes abundantly clear when Ingrid voices her desire to have a baby. Suddenly there is a shift away from a preoccupation with thought processes towards chaos and feeling, a shift which threatens Rollo's carefully constructed 'safe reality'. Showing little or no interest in Rollo's reservations, Ingrid sets about making their baby on her own - by knitting it out of materials from the fort. But when it is complete (in a further act of defiance, Ingrid decides the baby is male, going against Rollo's wishes), both protagonists find themselves pitched against each other in a bizarre cat-and-mouse game to protect their offspring, both convinced that the other will harm it. But there is a final twist in store, and one which will have a cataclysmic and yet redemptive effect on their lives.

By successfully combining literary fiction with a strong sense of the absurd, Revert has aquired somewhat of a cult following, and Basal Ganglia, his fourth book, is arguably his best work so far. It is by no means an easy read, but all the more rewarding for it. The biggest challenge for the reader lies in the multi-layered prose, but once we are drawn into Rollo and Ingrid's surreal world and the plot gathers pace, it becomes irresistibly hypnotic. Maybe more importantly, there is an air of detachment about the prose which is in stark but intriguing contrast with the depth of emotions it conveys, and this is one of the novel's greatest strengths and achievements: accordingly, as the story unfolds, the action begins to leave the head and become more sense-based.

A truly original gem which should establish Matthew Revert as one of the most promising literary writers of his generation.