If you like stories where hope triumphs over adversity and the endings are brought to a happy conclusion, this isn’t the book for you. It starts in less than ideal circumstances and at no stage does anything get any better.
Kevin Brooks has been criticised for telling a relentlessly bleak story where evil reigns and good is almost entirely absent. In fact, the reason I was drawn to this book before any of the others on the Carnegie shortlist was that I was told it had no redeeming feature or purpose beyond introducing evil event after evil event into an evil situation. As it turns out, it’s my kind of book.
Good books don’t just entertain; they make you think. Good books allow ideas to transcend their setting and play themselves out in the further reaches of your mind. This is such a book. The ideas might take root as nightmares that wake you in a sweat or, worse, prevent you from getting to sleep to begin with. For me, they plumbed some of the depths of my thoughts of life and God and Hell and what it means to be human. This is an overtly theological book.
Our protagonist Linus is cast into an underground bunker cut off from the outside world (except for a lift that arrives once a day to bring deliveries and later leaves with whatever those in the bunker want to send up to the surface). The place is covered with cameras and microphones – nothing is hidden; nothing goes undetected. There are six rooms, and in time five people join Linus down there. It is assumed that there is a sole captor, a man, who is referred to as capital-H ‘Him’ in Linus’s first-person narrative diary.
So far, so vindictive-God-preys-on-helpless-humanity.
God watches over everything, hears all that goes on, and acts Tower of Babel style to intervene when people get a bit bolshie and try to outmanoeuvre him (Genesis 11). In the bunker, the Lord gives and the Lord takes away (Job 1). God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few (Ecclesiastes 5).
This is God as tyrant, arbitrarily snatching people from all walks of life and dropping them into a hopeless pit, observing them and playing games with them with full culpability for their position. In the bunker, God is vindictive and punitive and pugilistic. (And, we are led to believe, voyeuristic.)
Brooks’s unnuanced portrayal of God stands in contrast to his measured approach to the characters in the bunker. As time passes, the six visible characters increasingly embody their more dominant character traits, for good or ill. Lunus himself becomes increasingly stoic and single-minded in his protection of Jenny; he harks back to his childhood more frequently and more potently. Jenny becomes even more innocent, more pure, somehow less corrupted by events as they unfold. Fred who, let’s face it, we all expected to be a baddie, has a paternalistic streak that becomes a trait, until his impulsiveness and weakness against endurance in the face of temptation leads to his suicide. Anja seems to transform from a confident Strong Woman type into a flaky wreck but the implication is that the flaky wreck was the real Anja all along.
The changes in Russell and Bird’s characters are marked by their respective illnesses. Bird’s makes him more like himself – rabid, we assume, and mindlessly destructive. Russell’s makes him less like himself, as he loses his mind to a tumour. He fights it, though, and his thoughtful, reflective, questioning nature flashes strongly towards the end more brightly than it had shone before his decline. He kills himself not because of the hopelessness of the situation in the bunker but because he was being destroyed from the inside out.
Russell’s tumor is instructive because it shows that the Man who imprisoned the six people in the bunker isn’t the only source of evil in the world. Russell was already dying before he arrived. Bird was already an awful man. Anja was already broken inside. Fred was already shady and violent. Linus had already been questioning his place in the world.
Only Jenny arrived essentially untainted by the world, and she became more right as events took their course. The Man didn’t achieve anything, in other words; he simply accelerated the characters through a lifetime of evil in the space of a few weeks, making them more of who they were sooner, until they died. He does play games through the course of the book, but they are more like tinkering to advance the inevitable. He introduces catalysts to speed up the inevitable reactions, but never tries fundamentally to change events. He does not set anyone free or ask anything from them. He doesn’t even cause the final resolution of events: he disappears.
In other words, the Man – God – was a red herring in the meaning of the story. It wasn’t about who the Man was at all; it was about who the characters in the bunker were. Brooks never tells us the former because we don’t need to know that to understand the story. In fact, it would just be a distraction.
The notepad and the Bible
In one revealing episode, Linus is desperate for something to read to take his mind of thinking, but even then doesn’t open the Bible. “I can’t possibly read that,” he writes. “Anything else would do.” Instead, he wants a dictionary because a dictionary contains all the words of every other book, albeit not in the correct order. The choice is drawn between the tangible idea or worldview (that of the Bible) and an infinite multiplicity of intangible ideas or worldviews (that of the dictionary). Linus rejects the one he has ready access to even though he is unable to replace it with anything else. His ‘anything else’ turns out to be nothing else. Thus ends the parable on postmodernism.
Actually, there is another digression into postmodernism in a throwback to St Augustine, one of the great theologians of world history. Russell invokes Augustine to explain to Linus that time is relative.
‘Many centuries ago he was asked the question, “What is time?” And his reply was, “If no one asks me, I know; but if any person should require me to tell him, I cannot.”‘
It is severely anachronous to suggest that Augustine was a modern-day existentialist, which Brooks has Russell do here. It’s a sort of confirmation from the wise sage character that Linus’s own experience is what is going to count for him, not some objective reality. The clock is only on the wall in order to mess with the characters’ perception of reality; they fall into routines of time, but even they are arbitrary. Everything is subjective, interpreted by the characters.
And our account is no less subjective, belonging as it does to Linus’s perception of reality. When he directly addresses the Man, he does so defiantly as if he has mastery over him. Because the Man exists in his perception of reality, he is able to construct the Man however he wishes. He goes against the eyewitness evidence of his appearance and instead clothes him as a short, poorly-dressed, dumpy forty-year-old. “How’s that, Monster Man? Am I close? No? Well, I’ll tell you what. That’s my picture of You, and that’s all that counts…. What I see is what You are.”
The characters are given only two things in the bunker: a notepad and a Bible. The Bunker Diary is really a book about these two books: the Book of Books and the book yet to be written.
There is a helplessness implicit in Linus’s writing. It’s unlikely that anyone will ever read his notebook. “Who are you?” he asks of his reader. “I don’t know. I have no one in mind for you. I know you’re somewhere, but right now you’re nowhere, and I’m talking to myself.” Linus can’t imagine circumstances beyond his own experience.
Even if someone does read the diary, they will be unable to help him in his present situation. There is no purpose to his writing; no hope. He is writing his own story, but it can never be any more than he is. He collects the others’ notebooks and finds in them either random jottings that make no sense to him, or brilliant musings, or nothing at all. Nothing any of the characters creates in their notebooks is of any use to anyone.
Linus rejects out-of-hand the utility of the Bible. He ends up eating part of his (cue diarrhoea and a warning not to try this at home). A passive presence throughout the story, it’s not for nothing that the only time Linus does something with the Bible it comes out in a dirty brown mess. He turns to it not to satisfy his spiritual hunger but his physical hunger, and it makes him worse off.
Only Jenny reads he Bible. Jenny, the nine-year-old, arguably stands to understand less than the others do, yet she is consistently the most accurate in reading the situation. Uncorrupted by the world, she is the only one to see the Man as a man rather than a monster. She suggests that they ask him for food; she suggests that Linus apologises to him for trying to escape. She is rarely present when the others discuss grown-up things like trying to break out or deal with dead bodies. Indeed, when Fred pontificates on how they should have kept the Bird’s rotund body for food, Jenny is quick to stress her humanity.
ME (smiling): You’re an animal, Fred.
FRED: We’re all animals.
JENNY: I’m not an animal.
FRED (gently): Yes, you are.
JENNY: I’m not.
FRED: You are.
Fred has the last word but Jenny is right. Somehow she is better prepared for the situation than the grown-ups are. Brooks doesn’t tell us what she read from the Bible, but I like to think it was Matthew 19: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
One of the most poignant passages of the Bunker Diary comes towards the end when Linus, Jenny and Fred are huddled together in Linus’s room.
All my life I’ve never really felt like I belonged anywhere… I never knew where I was. And now here I am, stuck in the depths of this cold white bunker…
And you know what? I finally know what it feels to belong somewhere.
For the boy who had lost his mother and run away from his father and boarding school, finding home is a resolution to a problem he had even before entering the bunker. If you remove the circumstances of him being trapped and a bunker and left to die, you would have a character with no real family drifting with no purpose. By the end of the story, he has found a purpose in protecting Jenny and a place in their strange trio along with Fred. Those scenes are told like they are brothers and sister. They become family.
Brooks contrasts Linus’s relationships in the bunker with those outside, with his parents and his friends on the streets. His mate Pretty Bob once beat up a private investigator Linus’s father had sent to look for him: “I don’t think he did it for my sake,” Linus writes. “He just likes beating people up.” Contrast Fred, who beats Bird to death when he attacks Jenny. Fred doesn’t mean to kill him, and does so only because Jenny was at risk. Before the bunker, his relationships were less human than they are inside – at least once Bird and Anja are dead.
In a real sense, Linus finds what he has been missing his whole life as it ebbs away in his final days in the bunker. Considering the problems Linus had at the start of the book, he is better off at the end. Of course the events in the meantime are horrific, but if what really matters to Linus is that he finds family and a place called home then the end of the book actually is a happy one.
Linus lives life without God, actively rejecting the idea to the last. His view of the Man upstairs is knowingly insulting, shrinking him to a figure of ridicule. He has no hold on Linus, despite the initial appearance, and eventually becomes irrelevant to Linus’s day-to-day existence in the bunker. By the end it’s like he had never existed. (Had he?)
The postmodern condition is uniquely pessimistic, essentially resulting in hopelessness and despair for those who are brave enough to contemplate it properly. Brooks shows that in the Bunker Diary, which is undeniably tough to read. But even Linus finds his place, some kind of contentment, in the midst of the worst kind of chaos.
Maybe existentialism has created so much metaphysical space that everyone can have their own share that they can construct as the best fit for them. Ultimately, that’s all good, sweet little Jenny’s Bible reading is – the best fit for her. Brooks allows his protagonist to dispense with God: philosophically there is no space left for him by the end because Linus’s word – his perception of reality – is all that remains. Linus’s view triumphs in the bunker.
God is dead, Brooks is saying, and he wasn’t much of a God to begin with.
Outside the bunker, though, God is alive and well. Here in the real world, truth isn’t observed through Linus’s eyes. The tragedy of the story is that if he had read his Bible with ears to hear, he would have met a God who condescended to come down into the pit to make a way out for those who would follow him. He would have found that the God of the Bible is the God of the bunker-places, as well as the God of the upstairs. Linus spends the book under the assumption that the Bible had nothing to say about being in the pit; he doesn’t know that it’s a book for the bunker. It tells of the one who came down in the lift one Friday, so to speak, and went back up three days later to make the way for the others to come after him. It tells of a God who knows the very worst the world has to offer and who has conquered it all. It tells of Easter.