INTERVIEW: Thomas McMullan on sex, shame and ‘The Last Good Man’

Photograph by Jonathan Ring

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Thomas McMullan on the research process behind his novel The Last Good Man (Bloomsbury, 2020). 

I’d like to start with one of the potential origin-points for The Last Good Man – the central image of the wall upon which your characters publicly denounce one another. This form of public shaming – whether via Soviet-era newspapers, the dazibao posters of the Cultural Revolution or elsewhere – is one which obviously resonates with users of social media, as has been reflected in several critical readings of the novel. I’m not sure I buy the image of the wall as a direct metaphor for social media, but I am curious to know what function you feel outing so-called ‘enemies of the people’ might have both historically and today. Why do so many societies seem to rely on scapegoat culture? And how might that idea have fed into The Last Good Man?

There’s a large wall on a hill across the water of Plymouth Hoe. It’s big and always seemed a bit pointless to me when I was growing up, although I’m told it serves some protective purpose for a nearby fort. It looks more like a piece of public sculpture. I didn’t consciously have Bovisand Wall in mind when I was writing the novel (I only just found out its name) but I’m sure it was in there somewhere, as was Dartmoor Prison, as was the 196-metre high transmitting station on the top of the hill beside Princetown.

I’m giving these examples because the wall in my story; its imposition on the landscape, is important. It sticks out of the moorland. I recently read A Horse at Night: On Writing by Amina Cain and there’s a bit in that where she says she’s been thinking about landscape painting and literature: ‘and perhaps as an extension of this I have started to think through the idea of character and landscape as similar things, or at least as intimates, co-dependent.’ Hard to disagree. The wall is as much a part of the characters’ minds as it is a part of the horizon they see.

In the novel, it’s suggested at several points that the wall used to be more utopian in the kind of writing it hosted. There used to be marriage proposals, celebrations, things like that. Whether or not this is a case of characters misremembering, there’s a sense that this imposition on the landscape, and by extension their psychologies, wasn’t always associated with violence. The wall, at its core, is a reminder of seeing and being seen, which can be as much a joyous thing as a source of unease.

At some point the wall in the novel became a more formalised space for the community to police itself. I was struck with the dazibao posters of the Cultural Revolution, in particular the way in which local squabbles would play out in these spaces. It’s a reminder that the whole concept of ‘enemies of the people’, a term which implies a degree of objective judgement, is often tied to these complex local dynamics working beneath the surface.

Actually, writing this, I’ve just thought of an interview with a British Army captain in Adam Curtis’ documentary, Bitter Lake. The captain reflects on the failure of Western forces to fully comprehend the situation in Afghanistan: ‘We understood the conflict as good, bad. Black, white. Government, Taliban,’ he says. ‘They’ve understood it as a shifting mosaic of different groups and leaders fighting each other … over power.’ Perhaps there’s something of this in how the simplified idea of ‘good’ can be leveraged by those that wish to gain – or keep – power in a community.

I’m glad you mentioned community. In The Last Good Man, as in other contemporary reflections on the village as a social structure, community is both cohesive and conspiratorial. It involves both maintaining a cogent group identity and protecting that identity from outside corruption, an idea that can easily (at least in the UK) be projected from the rural to the national. What are your feelings on localism, both in terms of rural and national community? Is it, as your character James Hale perhaps naively states, ‘something we need in the world right now… A bit of community. A bit of sense’ (p.55)?

I began writing the novel before the Brexit vote, but most of the work was done in the years after and it almost goes without saying that a sense of community division was palpable in the UK. A lot could be written about the wider reasons for this division, from the impact of years of austerity and the systemic dismantling of community support networks, through to the UK’s changing role in global politics, through to the building reality of the climate crisis, but along with this breakdown there is a fantasy of the local as place of stable and communally shared identity.

This fantasy tends to be associated with the rural, at least for those in cities. During the pandemic we saw a return to the old fear of the city as a site for disease, of dangerous and uncontrollable, perhaps incomprehensible, forces. The fantasy of the rural community, on the other hand, is a desire for comprehension, place, order. ‘A bit of sense.’ Perhaps this is why James Hale believes in the wall, because he wants to believe that it is a source of comprehension, in which words are written and interpreted, the state of things understood, action duly taken.

Personally, I know this is misguided as much as I recognise the desire. As our global order becomes increasingly dysfunctional, who wouldn’t look for something stable to grip onto? Instead of facing the enormity of interlinked conflicts and failed climate pledges, who wouldn’t hope for a clear task at hand?

I certainly recognise the resurgence of that fantasy, though I feel it may cut both ways. That motif of the conspiratorial insular community (as well as the countryside as a site of violence) is also a key motif of folk horror, and something with a widespread presence from The Wicker Man to Hot Fuzz. Was folk horror, in any of its forms, a direct influence on The Last Good Man, and how helpful do you feel genre terms like this are in approaching the contemporary novel? Is ‘folk horror’ useful for understanding The Last Good Man?

I didn’t really have folk horror in mind when writing The Last Good Man, although it strikes me this is the flipside of our previous idea, that the ‘sense’ of the community turns out to be perverse, predatory. I was more influenced by Samuel Beckett, the use of landscape and language in Waiting for Godot and Not I. There’s a Kazuo Ishiguro short story, ‘A Village After Dark’, which my agent got me onto early in the submission process, and I admire the mood captured there.

For the second part of your question, I cringe a bit at genre terms like this. I’m not sure why, although perhaps it has something to do with the desire – it seems particularly strong with books and films – to categorise along the lines of affect. I mean, I can see why. Thrillers, romance, horror. You’re expecting an emotion. But there’s a level on which it feels a bit…

I’ll tell you what. It feels like it’s a way for the industry to know how to sell things. In some cases this works well but in other cases it feels like the toes have been chopped off to fit a foot into a slipper. I wouldn’t begrudge a reader wanting to orientate themselves, it’s inevitable, you’re always going to be read through the lens of other things the reader has encountered, but genre terms shut down an open reading in favour of something already known.

I’ve asked already about the potential political questions brought up by the novel, but I also feel as though it is (or perhaps is mostly) a story that has more to say about the human condition than only its place within group behaviour. In your interview with the Yorkshire Times, you said that The Last Good Man is ‘less a post-dystopia and more a manifestation of some mass psychological crisis, a bad dream’, which resonates with the fact that so many of your characters’ public dilemmas are rooted in private anxieties, particularly around sex. I’m curious to know how much you feel we (and your characters) are driven, even in our public and social personas, by the things that happen behind closed doors?

Sex is one of the main things we have going. It makes sense for it to drive at least some of the drama in our lives. I like how central sex is to Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. All the stuff about free will and God and morality and meaning, and the core of the story is the sexual rivalry between a father and son with the beautiful, powerful Grushenka. Those anxieties are very much a part of the novel’s philosophy. (As an aside, that book doesn’t get talked about enough as an erotic novel. There’s a genre term for you.)

Is the ‘closed doors’ of your question meant in these terms? The door to the bedroom? It also makes me think of the trapdoor that tends to get spoken about with Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, a door guarded by the ego that, when asleep, is breached by the unconscious mind.

As far as my novel’s concerned, there are quite a few accusations on the wall about sexual matters, particularly about women in the village. This was purposeful. There is a patriarchal nastiness to what is put up on the wall. The wall is framed by some as an objective space but one that is ultimately structured around power dynamics that benefit a certain moral status quo, which in turn benefits those that wield authority in the community.

On the other hand, one of the characters in the novel keeps a diary of her dreams. I’d thought of this as a place of private understanding in contrast to public interpretation, but perhaps both kinds of writing are a way to express power over something that happens behind closed doors.

While I would love to delve further into the human psychology of the novel, I nevertheless feel as though I have to swing back to society before we close. The Last Good Man, as a novel of the near future, paints a grim picture. If I may ask, how optimistic are you about the future of our civilisation in the next fifty years? Is there room, in your personal outlook, for hope?

I’m writing this on the day that the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, has warned that we are approaching tipping points that make climate breakdown irreversible, and ‘we will be doomed’ without an historic climate pact. The truth of the matter is that an unprecedented level of global cooperation is needed at a time when geopolitical tensions are greater than they have been for generations, and because of this I think a breakthrough of the scale Guterres is talking about is unlikely.

Many people will die, many are already dying as a direct result of climate breakdown. I’m sure action will be taken but I fear it will be too late to prevent the kinds of catastrophes that will drive human civilisation from previously inhabitable areas. This is already happening. The level of displacement will be of a different order, however, in the next fifty years, and it doesn’t take much to see the potential social and political fallout of this. Our home secretary is already using the toxic rhetoric of ‘invasions’ to describe those seeking asylum across the channel.

I am hopeful, however. What’s the alternative? I have hope that humanity will find ways to adapt, even if it is unfair that those forced to adapt the most will have contributed the least to the problem. We as a species generally excel at being reactive, even if we sometimes fail to plan ahead. I have hope that collapse opens up possibilities, that there are voices in the dark, that we make each other laugh, that we enjoy it, seek it out, that we have more interesting dreams with belly aches, when the wind is blowing and you think where did that come from, the image of an apple the size of a room. I have hope that we will flower. I have high hopes in the rituals of death. I have a child now and he’s almost speaking, any day now.

Thomas McMullan is the author of The Last Good Man, winner of the 2021 Betty Trask Prize. His fiction and poetry has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Lighthouse and Best British Short Stories. He has also written journalistically for the Guardian, Frieze and BBC News, and worked with theatre companies in London, Amsterdam and Los Angeles.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

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