Monday, 24 March 2014

The Bunker Diary: What is it All About?

Three days from finishing it, and Kevin Brooks’ The Bunker Diary still has me perplexed. While I cannot honestly encourage anyone to read it, I am equally unable to dismiss it as the pointless or powerless novel it initially seemed. Or maybe I am. For the last three days I have been almost constantly contemplating what, if anything, Brooks is trying to convey through the novel. Perhaps I was right in my initial assessment that the message of the book was ultimately nothing, but I can’t stop myself trying to find a meaning to it; the harrowing content needs to be justified in some way for the unsatisfactory ending to be at all worthwhile. Be aware, if you are wanting to read this, that there are several large spoilers below; this is very much a retrospective analysis that requires reference to the text itself. Some of the theories I presented in my previous review, but they are examined in more depth here, others are new and very much a work-in-progress.

  The most obvious of the potential overtones to the novel is its nihilist perspective on life. Regardless of meaning, one has to accept that the Bunker itself is a microcosm for the ‘real world’, with the diversity of the characters representing snapshot of a larger society. In the final third of the novel, the mysterious kidnapper, who until this point controls every aspect of the prisoners’ lives, disappears. Whether he dies, or simply grows tired of his imprisoned playthings remains unknown, but what is obvious is how, from this point on, life for the protagonists becomes entirely futile. There is no way out of the bunker, even when it is unguarded, and as the lights go out and the supplies dwindle, survival becomes increasingly impossible. For the three characters alive at this point, it is only a matter of time, and every entry in the diary is only a sign that the inevitable is delayed a day longer. Death can be the only end for the novel, and going back to the idea of the Bunker as a microcosm, it is clear to see the nihilist perspective here; life is ultimately pointless. There can be no escape and nothing matters. The conclusion is inevitable, a happy ending is impossible.

The nihilist overtones are also evident in the way Brooks handles what could otherwise be relevant social issues. While he does present drug abuse, alcoholism, homosexuality and terminal illness, these themes are not at all developed, becoming little more than plot points and character traits. It may well be that Brooks simply chose not to expand upon these themes, but given the context and the above theory, it is perhaps another element of the nihilism. The lack of development relegates these themes to insignificance, suggesting once again the ultimate worthlessness of life.

Finally on that point, the fact that no motive is presented for the kidnappings also implies a degree of nihilism. Arguably, the reason doesn’t matter, only the events, but no conclusion is ever reached regarding precisely why the victims are imprisoned. While it may not matter to them in the end, the reader is left wondering, and never answered. Death is, in the end, the only concern for the protagonists, but for the reader, the need to know why and the lack of an answer again highlights the sheer pointlessness of the events for those of us on the outside as well as those on the inside.  Perhaps there was no reason, simply the old Shakespearean statement that ‘as flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods, they kill us for their sport.’

Which leads me nicely to the next point: the atheist overtones of the novel. There are some very obvious allusions to unnamed kidnapper as a kind of deity (or false deity). The lift provides a channel of communication through which his will is done, the notes taken back up are akin to prayer. He becomes omniscient in this microcosm, able to see, hear and know everything about the inmates. They come to depend on him for their very survival. Linus refers to Him (always capitalised) as an omnipotent being, sometimes even the direct reader of the Diary, and at one point suggest that only the perception and not the reality of the kidnapper/god matters. He is very much a deified persona.

So how is this seemingly obvious godlike being representative of an atheist undertone? Because he is, in reality only a man, his power entirely manufactured (perhaps allegorical to religious control?). Because when, in the last section, they are abandoned by this godlike figure, the prisoners’ experience becomes far more dangerous but far more real than before; survival is the only instinct and only driving force, and ultimately the most powerful.

Another theory that crossed my mind was that the novel was an attack on voyeurism. The microcosm supplied in the Bunker is in many ways similar to any number of television shows that give insight into very real events from a perspective so detached that misfortune becomes entertainment. Through the diary, the reader is drawn into watching as, one-by-one, the protagonists fall slowly into insanity and destruction, and by the point things turn exceedingly nasty, one is already too invested to easily look away. By making his characters so real and layered prior to the true trauma, the reader feels almost guilty when they keep reading. I think this could easily suggest that Brooks is attacking the society in which schadenfreude is the norm; we look at the televised misfortune of unknown strangers and laugh, but when we ‘know’ the characters in the same (albeit more extreme) situation, we are appalled.

Another suggestion, similar to the above, is that the manufactured world in which the protagonists exist in is potentially a mocking of our own. Time is controlled by the kidnapper, sped up and slowed down on a whim. They are entirely dependent on him to provide their food and to keep conditions at a point at which they can keep a grip on sanity. They are mercilessly punished for every transgression. Is Brooks trying to warn us against the dangers of a controlled society? Or is he suggesting that control is imperative for modern life, as the characters descend into madness as soon as the control is lifted?

The real question is, am I just clutching at straws? The answer is undoubtedly yes. I’ve spent the last few days desperately trying to derive some kind of meaning or explanation from this harrowing novel, simply because to read through such a level of insanity and hopelessness without some kind of reasoning or statement to be taken from it is, to me, just plain wrong. I imagine every answer I’ve attempted to come up with is simply a wild theory to justify the novel I was appalled by. That said, I hope you found this interesting. 

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