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the Complete Review
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Sibylle Berg

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To purchase Grime

Title: Grime
Author: Sibylle Berg
Genre: Novel
Written: 2019 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 634 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Grime - US
Grime - UK
Grime - Canada
GRM - Deutschland
GRM Brainfuck - España
  • German title: GRM
  • German subtitle: Brainfuck
  • The English translation by Tim Mohr is due out in December, 2022

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Our Assessment:

B : terribly grim; well-done in parts but a bit hard to take as a whole

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
NZZ . 14/5/2019 Philipp Theisohn
Die Welt . 22/4/2019 Marlen Hobrack
Die Zeit . 16/4/2019 Ursula März

  From the Reviews:
  • "Versteht man das alles nicht als eine Marketingspielerei, sondern als ein poetisches Konzept, so hat man es hier vor allem mit einem im wörtlichen und ehrlichen Sinne «zynischen» Text zu tun. (...) Konsequent ersetzt sie die Mitleidsgeschichte durch eine drastische Performanz, materialisiert in einem roten Totschläger von 634 Seiten. (...) Keine ästhetische Distanz, keine Vermittlung von Ideen. Literatur als roher Körperkontakt. (...) Als Performance gegen alles, was noch einen Zukunftsentwurf mit sich herumzutragen glaubt, gegen den Dünkel der Kultur und des gesellschaftlichen Fortschritts, gegen Erwartungen an literaturförmige Ware selbst, hat derText seine Momente, denn Gift genug ist da." - Philipp Theisohn, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Einem Buch, das auch das Hirn des Lesers ordentlich durchnimmt, bis auch ihm nur noch zu sagen bleibt: Grmmm. (...) Nun könnte man Berg vorwerfen, dass ihre Figuren wie die Klischees von Klischees sind, nicht einmal Abklatsche von Wirklichkeit. Aber genau das macht sie zu Typen. (...) GRM Brainfuck liest sich so, als würde man durch die dunkelsten Ecken des Netzes surfen, allen Grauens ansichtig werden. In manchen Rezensionen wurde dem Roman vorgeworfen, dass er vor allem behauptet und nicht zeigt. Doch tatsächlich handelt es sich um eine literarische Strategie, die eigentlich nicht auszuhaltenden Geschichten der Kinder erträglich zu halten. Ganz einfühlen können wir uns nicht, weil diese Kinder nicht fühlen, sondern ihr Fühlen nur geschildert, nur behauptet wird." - Marlen Hobrack, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note: Grime, the English translation of GRM, is due out in December, 2022; I have not seen it, and this review is based on the German original; all translations are my own.]

       Sibylle Berg's GRM is set in early twenty-first-century England -- beginning in our times, then moving forward to a post-Brexit, post-monarchy world where even the BBC has been privatized. The first part of the novel is set almost entirely in the dead-end, no-hope town of Rochdale, near Manchester, and introduces the quartet of children who are the main protagonists. The four come from varying backgrounds, but one way or another their lives have spiraled down into the misery that is life in Rochdale -- plunging there still further down and out. It's not a pretty picture.
       There's Donatella, called Don, a mixed race bundle of hate since her birth who lives with her mother and brother, with the father only a very occasional presence. There's Hannah, who grows up in Liverpool, the daughter of two Indian Jews, third-generation emigrants to England who owned a photography shop -- a dying business that then collapses after the mother is killed by stray gunshots, bringing Hannah and her father to Rochdale. There's the incredibly intelligent albino Karen, who lives with her unstable mother and two brothers. And there's quiet Peter, who grows up in a dying corner of Poland and is brought to England by his single mother.
       The parents aren't very good at being parents to begin with, hardly to be relied on if they are around -- and eventually few of them are. Hannah and Karen's mothers die in (preventable) accidents, while others -- Hannah's father, Peter's mother -- simply abandon their kids, one way or another. The kids aren't so much left to fend for themselves as to try to survive; they do, but especially the psychological toll is high; they're damaged practically from the start, but their circumstances and experience just make everything worse. But in the picture of society Berg paints, this is mostly par for the course: there is no opportunity and little hope here, and everyone is pretty damaged -- with especially the men then acting out in ways that just exacerbate the vicious circle of societal decline. (This being Europe, there is still a social service safety net of sorts, which does provide some -- if often not very helpful -- support, including in providing housing (of sorts); compared to the US's patchwork private and public (and very hit and miss) system of social services the support might actually seem quite generous and dependable to American readers.)
       The four kids find each other -- 'They recognized each other. As outsiders, as fringe-dwellers, as outcasts' -- and form a family of sorts, spending their free time together. Previously isolated, they find they're four freaks of a kind, drawn together, despite being very different characters, by their shared inability to fit in anywhere else. Soon enough they also have a shared loose ambition, suggested by Karen: to revenge themselves against all who have hurt them. It's not something they obsess over -- hurt has come for so long, from so many directions, that it would be hard to muster the energy to lash out against anywhere near all of it -- but makes for a goal-oriented task (in a world where it's hard to find any purpose) that they occasionally turn to; it's quite a while before they get more serious about it. Certainly, some of their targets have it -- and a whole lot more -- coming.
       This first part of GRM isn't a (four-)buddy-saga; despite the kids finding each other, Berg doesn't focus anywhere near solely on what they get up to together; as much of it features them -- and others -- apart. At one point Don and her family are even relocated to Manchester; she's away from Rochdale and the others for two whole years (but Rochdale is inescapable, and they're sent back ...). They do come together again after Don's return, and then with Karen's mother's death -- in a Grenfell Tower-like accident --, leaving her without any family beyond her three reliable friends, they decide it's time to leave Rochdale behind and head to the big city -- London.
       This first part of the novel, taking up a third of it, is in some ways just preamble, character- and (societal collapse-)scene-setting. With the move to London, the kids -- and they are still just kids, in their teens -- also move into a new, quickly-changing world, where technological, political, and social change accelerates. If Berg focused on the slow-rot of socio-economic decline in Rochdale in the first part, a darkened picture of the here and now, she now moves on to a dystopian vision of what she imagines lying ahead. Some of it is more or less inconsequential, beyond a bit of symbolism: the king abdicates and the royals close shop -- events that prove far less disruptive than feared. (Berg does have them retire to Scotland, which seems rather unlikely; surely they'd find themselves more comfortable and welcome either still on English soil or in a former colonial hot-spot.)
       A fundamental change comes in the way the government provides financial social support: a universal basic income is instituted -- but it replaces all other government payments to individuals, from state pensions to welfare payments. A system similar to the Chinese 'Social Credit System' is instituted, rewarding 'good' behavior -- and essentially taxing the bad. The state also becomes a super surveillance state in monitoring all human activity, as citizens get chips implanted that serve both nominally useful functions -- a convenient electronic way of paying for things, for example, as the society goes cash-less -- but also keep a record of all a person's activity; a supplemental bodycam -- users get three bonus points for simply picking one up, and five a month for using it -- gives an even more detailed picture of what people are up to.
       After exploring all of London -- something of a letdown -- the kids settle on a place to crash, a big old factory structure, Holyroodhouse. The kids avoid the authorities -- including avoiding getting chipped. They already disposed of their other tracking devices, their mobile electronics. Not that they weren't always more or less outside society, but these acts separate them even more clearly from official civil life. Not having chips does have its drawbacks, as, for example, cash is withdrawn from use and only chips can be used to make purchases, but the kids do find a sort of work-around for this, grisly though it is.
       The title of the novel refers to 'grime' music, popular at the time; they listen to a lot of it -- but here, as with practically everything else, Berg doesn't try to make too much of it: it doesn't come anywhere near to dominating even just parts of the book, in any way. Briefly, the kids are tempted to try to make music themselves, to form a band -- something like 'Ruff Sqwad 3.0' -- but it doesn't take much more than a single attempted jam session for them to realize: 'Nothing is going to come of this, is it ?' Berg's entire novel has an offhand feel, and at its best, such as the handling of grime music in the lives of the characters -- lightly sprinkled through the novel --, this works exceptionally well; so also grime is ultimately easily dismissed: 'They're playing grime. Gone mainstream. Another revolution that's been bought.'
       The kids are all restless, in their different ways, whether quiet and withdrawn like Peter or aggressively frustrated like Don. Brilliant Karen seeks out learning, and even manages to get access to a bona fide laboratory, where she develops a substance that, once dumped in the London water supply, leads to a fundamental change in a large swathe of the population. Even this is typically underplayed by Berg, the consequences mentioned and affecting some of the action, but neither cause nor effect really made too much of -- which fits right in with the general portrayal of what is, after all, a grim and lackluster society: "Die jungen Männer haben keinen Drang mehr" ('Young men have no more yearning') ? So what else is new ? It's just another urge, turned off.
       Berg doesn't harp on any single thing for long, which makes the incidental mentions of the world's decay all the more effective: the casual aside, for example, that there are no more birds in all of Britain ('Either they all died of boredom. Or they left the island, because they wanted to look around somewhere else'). Life-like sex robots are incredibly popular -- not least to take out aggressions on: assaults on sex robots top the violent crime statistics in the city. And there's a settlement on Mars, for what that's worth, briefly described -- a resort for the ultra-rich that maybe doesn't quite live up to all their hopes (especially poor Ray Kurzweil's, who dies there before achieving singularity-immortality).
       The action putters forwards; there's limited room for personal growth or change, much less opportunity. One of secondary characters the story repeatedly turns to is one of the wealthy politicians behind many of the changes that have been implemented; typically he -- a shoe-in to become prime minister at the next election -- is only described in relation to another character, as 'Thome's father' (Thome being a figure who plays a role in some of the kids' lives over the course of the novel, while also dealing with his own issues). Thome's father thinks he has it all figured out, especially once he's pushed the state to harness the full power of artificial intelligence and people's addiction to the internet and social media:

     The best investment in ages was the direct democracy that Thome's father had pushed through with the help of diverse lobby groups, fake-news-agencies, and hackers. It was so easy to steer people. If one had the necessary means. Now the sheep could vote for their prime minister themselves.
       Of course, Thome's father is in for a rude awakening when the election results do come in: the means were certainly effective, determining the outcome -- but that outcome looks very different from what he had anticipated. (And, no, Berg does not offer a happy-ending election, of people coming to their senses in who (or what) they give power to. People here are hopeless, as was already made clear when hacker-neighbors of the kids had tried to open everyone's eyes as to what being part of the surveillance state really means -- definitely not getting the reaction they desired or expected.)
       The kids' revenge-list is another part of what forward-movement there is to the plot, as, yes, the individuals on it get theirs -- but these too remain small episodes. The resolutions, be they brief, are still largely very satisfying -- in some case enormously so --, true come-uppance, creatively spun out. But, like everything in this long novel, it can get grim and wearing. Because that is what GRM is, above all -- grim, and wearing.
       There's some forward-movement in the kids' stories -- though Berg emphasizes, until near the very end, that, hey, they're still kids. There's some maturing, but more frustration, with issues of sex and love and dependency. The kids are trying to figure it out, but like everything in this world, there's little room for happy resolutions. Ultimately, at least Karen finds some traditional satisfaction in laboratory-life; the others too, find some sort of place, in the closest to a happy ending the story will allow.
       From start to finish GRM proceeds with the narrative moving with its focus from character to character every few pages or even more frequently -- Berg emphasizing connection from the get-go in bridging each section. A smaller cast of characters appear most frequently -- the kids and a few others -- but new ones are introduced throughout, often only for a brief episode, representative lives in this world. When any character is introduced, it's with a brief list of salient characteristics -- salient in this world: credit-worthiness, ethnicity, intelligence, sexuality, among other things; the list varies, depending on the character. It's helpful, in that Berg only limitedly builds characters: we do learn some of what shaped many of them, but most of the novel is so very much in a here and now that focuses simply on some form of getting by that there is barely room for any sort of personality, much less personal development, behind them: the characters are simply hanging on for dear (or not so dear) life. Even the kids. Everyone remains distant: impressively -- and rather uncomfortably -- GRM is a narrative that is almost entirely detached. It's not that Berg's presentation of characters and events is cold, but she keeps it all at a distance that prevents any real emotional engagement -- much as the characters' own feelings have largely been blunted (with some partial, noticeable exceptions).
       The descriptions, of people and what they go through, are succinctly to the point. A typical mention notes: 'The woman has a yoga studio. Well, had' -- and then quickly unfurls the downward spiral of trying, somehow, to hang on in this world. It's effective -- but it also gets to be a lot, the examples heaping up over the course of the novel, with basically no one's life ever getting better.
       Thome's father's conservative politics of personal responsibility that accelerate the collapse of this society -- de-functioning it, as it were -- is, of course, all too familiar from contemporary politics, especially in the UK and the United States (and, in perverse variation, China), and Berg's novel is certainly a system-critique. Her choice of settings makes for easy pickings, too, with England much farther down this road than, say most continental European countries; indeed, it's considerably harder to imagine a similar novel set in the author's adopted homeland of Switzerland (not that a similar critique wouldn't be possible, but the details wouldn't come nearly as easily).
       GRM is grim, grim, grim. Berg doesn't wallow in this misery and ugliness -- and it's all misery and ugliness -- but treats it, for better and worse, matter of factly. This makes it, in some way, bearable, but also limits what feelings a reader can muster about it -- in no small part no doubt Berg's point, as we are daily confronted with similar tales of real-life horror, abuse, and catastrophe that, after all, we do little more than shrug our shoulders at.
       Certainly, the book holds a certain fascination. The presentation is surprisingly propulsive, despite what amounts to a rather limited plot, and much of the sharp, off-hand observation is striking; if not exactly an easy read, GRM is certainly, even at this length, readable. The litany of misery -- much of it brutal, violent, and shocking (but then again, in this presentation, not quite so shocking ...) -- can be a bit much, but Berg's creative variations at least don't bog the story down in a morass of sameness.
       For all its exposing of the rot of much of contemporary political thought, and the dangers of technological change and advances, GRM ultimately doesn't quite pack the punch one might have expected. It's certainly an interesting piece of work, if not entirely a successful one.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 February 2021

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Grime: Reviews: Sibylle Berg: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature

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About the Author:

       Sibylle Berg is a German-born Swiss author.

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© 2021-2022 the complete review

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