The Reactor by Nick Blackburn review – radiation therapy

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Nick Blackburn began writing what would eventually become this, his first book, in 2017, in an office at Macclesfield hospital. That afternoon his father had died suddenly; while his mother signed some papers and was given back the plastic bag she’d used to bring her husband his pyjamas, he tapped out on his phone a thought about how, in death, “one dances”: an elusive notion that may have been stirred, he later realised, by an image from Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film, The Seventh Seal, which is set in a Sweden ravaged by plague.

The lines in question can be found, seemingly unedited, on page 28 of The Reactor; I know this because their author tells us of their Cheshire beginnings, and of what inspired them, on page 29. Blackburn, a therapist who specialises in LGBTQ+ issues, is always making the reader aware of the precise circumstances in which he wrote this or that part of his memoir; also, of the scepticism of his partner, James, over his habit of writing on the tube and other unlikely places, a practice that while producing plenty of shards, results in no coherent whole (“James says there’s nothing the miners’ strike and Chernobyl have in common”). Could it be that by pointing out the flimsy construction of his book himself, he hopes to encourage the reader not to think any more about it? To believe that its makeshift, provisional nature is the result of creative decision rather than, as it sometimes seemed to me, the result of creative failure?

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Blackburn’s central conceit is that grief and a variety of things related to nuclear meltdown might be comparable. Grief and radiation are, for instance, both invisible, while his father’s end had, he thinks, commonalities with the disaster at Chernobyl, an event with which he’s fascinated: the hospital, in age and size, was not unlike a Soviet power station; his father’s system, like that of a victim of radiation, was poisoned (a build-up of calcium in his brain). But this description gives no sense of Blackburn’s narrative as it appears on the page.

It is an approximation of something; a series of workings-out for which we still await a solution

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The clue is in the title. The Reactor is, in essence, an extended chain reaction, one thought – however fleeting, however partial; mostly, there are barely more than a dozen lines to the page – leading to another, and on and on, until the moment when its author at last looks ahead to a future in which his father’s ashes, having too long been stowed in the garage, will be scattered. Alderley Edge and Fukushima, Alexander McQueen and Rachel Carson, Audrey Roberts (of Coronation Street) and Ivor the Engine. Everything’s connected, you see.

On The Reactor’s jacket, someone praises this “bricolage” for its beauty and mystery. Bricolage is a lovely, distracting word; it makes me think of that genius Robert Rauschenberg. All the same, I can’t be tempted. I want to be kind, but I also think there’s no point in being less than truthful. The Reactor doesn’t read like “a book about grief and recovery”, but like notes towards a book about grief and recovery. In spite of Blackburn’s obvious wisdom and his occasional flashes of writerly brilliance (“a man’s knuckles on the morning tube, draped over his bag like one of Dalí’s melting clocks”), it is not, in my eyes, ready. It is an approximation of something; a series of workings-out for which we still await a solution. Like a commonplace book, it also relies too heavily on quotation; the thoughts of others.

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Why, I wonder, did no agent or editor see this? But I think I know the answer. Whether fortunately or unfortunately for Blackburn, The Reactor is paradigmatic of literary publishing’s current fad for barely-there books: brief, wilfully minimalistic volumes whose editors are clearly labouring under the illusion that they are (or, to be more accurate, might be) as brilliant and as dazzling as, say, Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation. It comes of nervousness, I think: a fear of pointing out that the emperor, though not exactly naked, has only managed so far to pull on his vest and pants. (What if this prose is, er, poetry? What if this slip of a book is the next Grief Is the Thing With Feathers?) But never mind! Here I am, my index finger cocked like a gun, to tell you that such gnomic morsels, however bewitching at moments, do not always a good and complete book make.

The Reactor by Nick Blackburn is published by Faber (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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