D.D.Johsnton’s novel entices the reader to face the “unreality” of narrative by emphasising that it must necessarily be constructed within complex and often contradictory systems of meaning. The author signals that we should be cautious, that his narrative may be “untrustworthy”, but that the apparently paradoxical effect should be to both strengthen our appreciation over the novel form, and to bring a deeper understanding of its relationship to the world outside the text. It asserts that successful metafiction must deconstruct narrative and yet at the same time validate that process, or rearrangement, through the medium of the reader.
Recent novels have fastened on this paradox by framing historical events within a critique that may veer from the rigorous to the banal. Many of these novels have been published with totemic one-consonant titles: claims have already been staked on G, HhhH, A,S and W. Although he has name checked most of these, D. D. Johnston has eschewed the choice of a further consonant and, perhaps taking his cue from Saki, called his novel The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub. Which at least gives a fair indication of what we are in for.
Thrub references itself from the very start, as it is a novel written in the form of a PhD thesis, so that what we are reading is a submission that has already succeeded in the world outside the text. The unnamed narrator within the novel is attempting to write a “fictionalised biography” of one Elsie Stuart. Elsie’s life, like the lives of those she meets, threads through the nodal points of early 20th-century history, specifically the history of the political left, so that characters find themselves in, say, 1919 Ukraine, the Spanish Civil War, and the Battle of Cable Street. All of this is impressively researched, and at several points Thrub becomes less of a novel than a history textbook: indeed, the editors have missed a post modernist trick by not printing Johnston’s online bibliography as an appendix. Alongside the historical material, and dealt out in alternating sections as if in a game (and in many respects this novel is indeed a game), we trace the narrator’s progress with his biography, his calf-like love for a fellow student, his attempts to pin down the unpredictable Thrub, and so on. These two strands may be separated in historical time but are tied together by the links, echoes, and reflections that feature in both.
But that’s just the start. Thrub is unashamedly a novel of ideas, both philosophical, historical and sociological concepts that are summarised, argued over, rebutted. And as we should expect from the title, one of the biggest of these ideas is the theory of the novel, and by extension the novel we are actually reading. In consequence Thrub’s pages are threaded with an awareness of his own fabrication, and this edges towards an oblique self-criticism: the names of the usual scholarly suspects are pinned through the text like tripwires. Perhaps DD Johnston regards this awareness is the core of Thrub, as the spine and ribs on which all else hangs, but in effect it functions more like an exoskeleton, its shell restricting and shaping fictional elements that might otherwise appear both loosely defined and unrelated. Readers are likely to find Thrub either exciting or precious, but few will disagree that this is an ambitious, erudite work with a profound interest in the world as we find it. This interest encompasses unexpectedly vivid sensory descriptions, scenes of violence such as those found in Babel, a junction of philosophy and farce reminiscent of Stoppard, a B.S. Johnson-like use of distancing, and an on-going dialectic between Kantian and post-Kantian theories being and action. In the end, the whole of Thrub is a less than the sum of its parts, but that is hardly to be condemned when some of those parts are engaging or frustrating and at the very least infused with a conviction of what the novel should be, and what it can achieve.
- The Warwick Review - Christopher Burnds
Having written of the troubled political awakening of the exploited young workers, it shows author DD Johnston's creative confidence that his second novel swerves as far away from burger-flippers as it is possible to get.
The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub is like a dopamine-enhanced Porterhouse Blue. As a PhD student grapples with the issues of free will and determinism refracted through the life of a Spanish civil war veteran, Johnston offers us a clanging charivari of clinical administrators, angry old academics and randy students.
Among this din, Johnston takes us on quite an emotional and intellectual journey. Being a clever bloke, his considerable book learning never quite allows the reader to dismiss him as a smarty-pants, although the great slabs of philosophical superstructure can be backbreaking. I certainly can't take any more Kant.
No, the author works through the conundrum of free will versus determinism by hooking onto the life of Elsie Stewart from her youth in poverty-torn Belfast into republican Spain and eventually onto the streets of Budapest in 1956.
The experiences of her lovers allows Johnston to examine the bloodthirsty situation in the Ukraine in the years after World War 1 as Bolsheviks, anarchists, nationalists, Mennonites and white Russians fought each other backwards and forwards over the steppes in a tide of violence.
Like a latter-day Candide, the student - whose name we never learn - experiences the works. Professor Thrub's mentoring is limited to hurling books of philosophy at his head, his face is smashed into a jigsaw of bone by monkey-wrench-wielding thugs and his girlfriend is stolen from him by a companion on a European fact-finding mission.
Johnston's raw and unexpurgated humour, which gave his characters in peave, Love and Petrol Bombs such humanity, returns as coarse as ever. Barry, the student's mate, offers him solace by tearing into just about every philosopher - 'Kant can suck my balls' - apart from Marx in about four pages of reputation shredding bile.
Of course, Johnston - a libertarian communist - can't resist settling old scores against both the Spanish Communist party or the Soviet Union, but he has written such a determinedly extraordinary book we can freely forgive him for that.
- Morning Star - Paul Simon