Archive for June 8th, 2014

June 8, 2014

Kevin Brooks, The Bunker Diary

The second of a series of posts about this year’s Carnegie Award shortlist. As with all the books on this list, there are probably (definitely) spoilers ahead.


My copy of Kevin Brooks’ The Bunker Diary has a quote from the book as part of its cover. “I thought he was blind—that’s how he got me”. It seems to promise the existence of a definite “he”, the villain of this particular piece. If so, it is not a promise the book is going to keep.

Linus is captured while trying to do a good deed, and taken to an underground bunker accessed only by an elevator that he cannot operate. There are six bedrooms and six empty notebooks (one of which becomes his diary, i.e. the book you’re reading), and as time passes five new captives join him. They are being observed constantly; they have to try to get along; occasionally they try to escape. Food sometimes arrives via the elevator and sometimes doesn’t, and sometimes they are punished or knocked unconscious by sleep gas for unknown reasons. Once a rabid Doberman comes down the lift and tries to kill them. We don’t know who the overseer of all of this is, unless it’s us—Linus’ diary is often addressed to a “you” that conflates his capture and his reader.

The diary format drives the plot forward in short, dated segments—Linus clings to control by trying to keep track of time before realising that this is hopeless—and its sense of a series of awful things coming one after the next. But, as one of the people with whom I read it complained, Linus isn’t young enough for his words to be linguistically interesting (as it would be if told in the voice of the much younger Jenny), and his teenage perspective only serves to absolve the book of certain biases. Linus is unfailingly good, Jenny is unfailingly kind. The attractive, career-driven Anja is selfish and shallow, Bird, who is fat*, is weak and horrible and the first to crack under the strain of their ordeal. However.

The Bunker Diary could be a comment on the relationship between reader and text (I’ll return to this), or a comment on reality TV, or on religion, or the fundamental unknowability of life (we’re here, we don’t know why things happen, who is in control, why a Doberman is trying to kill us). Brooks seems to be trying hard not to commit to any of these readings. This makes a resolution hard to come by; in rejecting all the potential solutions on offer, Brooks leaves himself very little room to do anything. And so Linus doesn’t find out why he’s here, he doesn’t save himself or Jenny; at the point where his diary ends it seems clear that he is doomed. There is no moment at which it all makes sense. That quote on the cover is either a red herring or just very badly chosen.

I think this might be quite important. There’s no shortage of narratives where a character is shut in an enclosed space, of course. But I think there’s something else that Brooks is doing here.

There’s a set of relations between reader and character, author and character, plot and character that we often take for granted because we’ve been telling stories for centuries and we’re used to them now. There is, for example, a sort of hierarchy of character disposability that comes into play with stories about death and destruction—protagonists rarely die because then the story would end midway with no resolution, but other characters must die so that we know the danger of death to be real. The Bunker Diary refuses this. If one character has to die, they all must; there can be no last-minute rescue for a favoured few. On this level at least, it is brutally democratic. Because we see Linus’ perspective, we see him more than once wondering what it is about him, as an individual, that may have led to his selection for this ordeal. The answer might be nothing at all.

Brooks explains on the Carnegie website that he refused to think about the who/why of the situation for fear that this would influence the way he wrote it. Even at the most basic level, then, the book resists the consolations of plot or closure. We are presented with an author who refuses to impose meaning or structure upon the events he depicts**. This makes The Bunker Diary pretty much the opposite of a novel, but at least it is committed to what it’s doing.



*The way in which Linus breaks down their characters is revealing. “We’re all something. I’m smart. Fred’s strong. Jenny’s kind. Anja’s beautiful. Bird’s … fat.”

**Penguin in their infinite wisdom have chosen to put the publisher’s logo at the beginning of each chapter of the kindle edition. This imposes a far more alarming possible narrative upon the story.