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‘And then the lights go oot. Forever’: Disnaeland

DD Johnston
Barbican Press, 2022
ISBN-13: 9781909954533

DD Johnston’s Disnaeland is perhaps the most hopeful apocalyptic novel you’re ever likely to read.

Johnston’s first novel, Peace, Love and Petrol Bombs, was very explicitly a novel about anarchism, following the clearly-somewhat-autobiographical protagonist from clashes with the manager at a burger chain in a Scottish town to the European summit protests that marked the turn of the century. A bit more than a decade on, and his fourth novel returns to a few of the same characters, including the manager of the aforementioned burger shop, and approaches anarchist themes from a different direction. While Kropotkin does get name-dropped at one point, Disnaeland is not mainly a novel about conscious political activists. Instead, it’s an extended celebration of mutual aid among social breakdown.

The mutual aid groups that flourished during the covid-19 lockdown are one obvious point of real-world inspiration for the book, along with the autonomous responses to various climate disasters. Some plot points in the book feel almost uncannily up-to-the-minute – I suppose tensions with Russia were probably already quite high when work started on the book, but I’m sure all the shit in the sea only started turning up in the news more recently.

An optimistic, mutual aid-focused book about social collapse could easily come off as flat and unconvincing, but Disnaeland has plenty of bleakness mixed in with the warmth: from the drug-addicted students, to alcohol-damaged Jehovah’s Witness Marjorie, from cancer-riddled academic Ruth to the neds and widos of the Young Mental Westbridge, Johnston’s characters come to the novel’s events carrying plenty of pain and damage, and their attempts at building up the new world from the collapse of the old are frequently marked by conflict and mistrust. The tension between collective and individualistic approaches to survival is dramatised by the Survivalists of Dundule, a small group of reactionary prepper types who abandon urban life as riots begin to break out, and set up an encampment, determined to outlive the masses that they look down on as “zombies”. The leader of this group of antagonists is named Hobbes, one of the less subtle jokes and references sprinkled throughout the text; on that note, I thought the fish shop being called Lord of the Fries was a pretty solid joke, and on reflection, the title itself could well be a play on utopia/no-place. There’s also a great James Kelman reference buried in there, as a treat for fans of grim Scottish fiction.

Non-Scottish readers will have to make a certain amount of effort to get into this very Scots book – most of the dialect was fairly self-explanatory, but “oxters” for armpits is one I’d not encountered before and really baffled me at first. But those who do will be rewarded: it’s a book that’s full of wit and heart, it has a twist ending that I won’t give away, and it has an entire section exploring the debate over labour notes/vouchers that was key to the break between collectivist and communist anarchism. It’s not necessary to be an anarchist to enjoy Disnaeland, but it’s certainly a novel that has a lot to offer anarchist readers.

~ Cautiously Pessimistic

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