Monday, 26 January 2015

Book review: All Involved by Ryan Gattis

Ryan Gattis couldn't have known that his second novel, All Involved, would be coming out at a time when America was once again in the midst of an explosive discourse about race relations, but maybe he suspected the circumstances for that discourse would materialise sooner rather than later, if his character Antonio Delgado is anything to go by.

In All Involved, Gattis' fictionalisation of six days during the 1992 riots in LA, Delgado, while high (he's always high) and on a joyride, reflects on LA's past history, realising that riots about race come round every 20 to 30 years. Delgado says the city is due another riot in 2022 or "before, I dunno". And while the epicentre wasn't LA and while the city-wide rioting of 1992 has mostly been replaced by angry protests, America is in uproar again following a series of cases of white police officers shooting dead black men, and not facing appropriate consequences for their actions.

But, even if it's well-timed, All Involved is still fiction. The novel follows a wide cast of characters, from gang members to emergency service workers, as they negotiate the tense streets of a city that's falling apart at the seams. Gattis's premise (based on real-life statements) is that during the riots, some of the deaths that took place may been opportunistic murders, and we begin with one of those.

All Involved starts as it means to go on - with a shocking and brutal scene that leaves you feeling raw and a little bit broken. And then it continues breaking your heart, and sometimes your soul, as you meet characters whose world is so different from anything you've ever known, and who you never thought you'd like or feel sympathy for, but somehow you do. And that's because of the way Gattis writes. He creates characters who do horrible, horrible things - murder indiscriminately, exert power over weaker people, get so, so, so high they set fire to things - and somehow presents them in such a way that you end up feeling for them.

Payasa is a prime example. The sister of a victim of crime and also of a crazy gang member, part of a gang herself, she is our first window into the world of the LA gang scene. She's tough, she takes absolutely no prisoners, and she's willing to take part in an execution. And somehow, somehow, I kind of ended up liking her. I felt sorry that she ended up in the situation she was in, but also almost completely unjudging of her actions (a little judging, because murder is bad). Gattis doesn't judge his characters (even the ones who we all expect better from), so neither did I, even though I have, of course, in the past just thought 'why don't they just get out?' when it comes to gang members. It's easy for someone like me to judge, but reading All Involved made me realise just how far removed from that life I am, and how I could never, ever begin to understand why a real-life Payasa would live the life she does. And if I can't understand, who am I to offer potential, unrealistic solutions and opinions?

All Involved rotates through a number of different characters - each section is devoted to someone new, although we see characters we've already spent time with, and those we will spend time with in future sections, pop up in other parts of the book. It means Gattis can create an expansive picture, spanning geographically and culturally across LA. But it's also a picture with enough gaps in it to leave the reader curious, and with room to make up our own mind. Very consciously, Gattis has shown just a slice of the lives of all of his characters - what happens to them after we leave them is largely unclear.

This novel is pretty violent, but it's the little things that are part of it that are perhaps more shocking than the murders and physical violence, and that drew stunned gasps from me. One of those little things concerns Payasa, and when I realised something about her I had to put my copy (a massive manuscript) of All Involved down and walk away so I had time to digest it. And the most awful character, for me, was either Watcher, who we actually only spend three pages with, or Anonymous, whose name we obviously never learn in the short period we're with him. Both characters, for very different reasons, left me feeling repulsed and saddened. It's amazing what a picture Gattis can create in just a few sentences or pages.

All Involved left me feeling a bit raw, like your skin feels when you accidentally scrape your knuckles on a cheese grater. At first you can't feel that scrape, you can just see that something bad has happened, and then that sting sets in, and there are possibly a few shocked tears. And then it heals, but your skin won't feel the same for a long while afterwards, even if it all looks okay on the surface. Only, instead of my knuckles, it was my heart that was scraped. 

I am, despite the phantom injuries, a huge, huge fan of this book. It would be a little embarrassing, but I know that All Involved is absolutely stunning, and worth pushing into the hands of every person I meet, and worth tweeting about on a regular basis. If it's possible to be a fangirl for a book, then I am one because, even though we've barely started the year, I can confidently say that this is one of the best books of 2015, if not the best. Come back to me in December 2015, and I'll say it again.

*All Involved is out in the UK on May 21, 2015.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Picador (ignore my messy desk in the pictures, and take a look at the gorgeous special edition proof). This did not affect my review. 

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