With his first novel, Stone Bleeding, Russell Mardell continues the trend started by his short story collection, Silent Bombs Falling on Green Grass, by creating something that defies genre. It begins as a classic detective novel and quickly takes a turn down a dark road into a near apocalyptic work caused not by zombies or nuclear war, but by reality television.
The story takes place in three interconnecting “verses,” each told by a different character who was directly involved with the country’s collapse. First we meet Zach, an actor turned private detective working one last case as the world crumbles around him, and through him we experience the remnants of times not so far past transposed into a new reality— including children playing mere feet from a corpse. Next comes Albie, game show starlet on her way out of town when she finds a boy who changes everything. And finally, Archie who, once the voice of the people, is being hunted by more than just the ghosts of his mistakes. Theirs is a future that could happen, though not to us, we wouldn’t let it. Would we?
This story appealed to me as a student of both literature and mass media. It examines a part of our everyday lives that we don’t really want to question: the changing role of mass media. Mardell makes some astute observations about the ways in which media impact our lives. In recent years, we have transitioned from consensus narrative, where there was one shared reality and one shared set of values, to one of individual realities and the freedom to choose our own values. We’re seeing a convergence of all of the traditional forms of mass media-newspapers, magazines, music, photography, film, books-all digitized and available online. While celebrities still dictate our taste and our interests, they are not so carefully screened through the studio system; more often, today’s celebrities are individuals who post blogs or upload videos to YouTube their popularity is decided by their audience and not by executives schooled in the ways of entertainment as a business. At the same time, more people are getting their news from comedy shows like Jon Stewart; we are increasingly more likely to text our votes for the reality competition show of the moment than we are to make our way to the polls on Election Day. How far are we from a time when we’ll be texting in those votes as well? The fact that these changes have happening so quickly, and with little opposition, places us in a position where the wrong choices are made at the wrong times could spell disaster.
While reading, I often felt as though these were transcriptions of audio recordings, found among the wreckage of some past or future event and left to warn us before it was too late. Mardell confronts this reality in a way that is equal parts funny and terrifying, though always genuine. Mardell’s England is claustrophobic as our narrators search for a way out of a country that is crumbling faster than the walls of the houses they once lived in. I found myself wondering how much different an event like 9/11 would have been felt if our country only reached as far west as Pennsylvania and was walled off from Canada.
Stone Bleeding is infinitely quotable as many of the characters’ musings relate as well to our reality as they do to theirs. They are simply things most of us wouldn’t say because we haven’t been placed in that position. Russell looks into his characters’ souls and coerces their innermost secrets. The thing that is compelling is not how different their feelings are from our own, but how much they are the same.
To be completely honest, my first reaction upon reaching the end of Stone Bleeding was to throw the Kindle I had been reading it on several feet to the other end of the bed and glare at it for several minutes. I was angry that it hadn’t handed me the answer to every question I’d had along the way. I wanted to post a single paragraph stating this was a terrible book and no one should ever read it, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. Taking a step back, as well as the time to consider not only the destination but the journey itself; I found the answers that I wanted and realized that was likely the point all along.
If you’re looking to have answers to handed to you and all the loose ends tied up tight enough to fit into the box you’d made to put them in, this book is not for you. This is a book for people who want to feel a connection to a book through drawing their own conclusions and making the tale their own in the spaces between. For those individuals, I wholeheartedly recommend Stone Bleeding.
Stone Bleeding is available for purchase now. For a list of retailers or to order a signed copy, visit russellmardell.co.uk