Morrissey’s List of the Lost is a Master Class on How Not to Write a NovelPhoto by Mike Pont/Getty Images Books Features Morrissey
Beware the novelist…intimate and indiscreet…pompous, prophetic airs…here is the fact of fiction…an American tale where, naturally, evil conquers good, and none live happily ever after, for the complicated pangs of the empty experiences of flesh-and-blood human figures are the reasons why nothing can ever be enough. To read a book is to let a root sink down. List of the Lost is the reality of what is true battling against what is permitted to be true. – Morrissey, 2015
Use definite, specific, concrete language. – The Elements of Style, 1959
Have mercy on the friend, the acquaintance, the editor who first set eyes on Morrissey’s List of the Lost. After finishing the former Smiths frontman’s debut novel, we can confirm that it must’ve been hard, if not impossible, to react honestly.
Since the List of the Lost’s late September release in the U.K., the opinion that Morrissey has released a terrible first novel—at 118 pages, it’s really a novella—couldn’t be more uniform. This is surprising to a select few, especially after critics were at least divided on his non-fiction work. Sure, there was that uproar about whether we could really declare the first run of an autobiography a Penguin Classic, but with publishing aesthetics aside, Autobiography’s criticism was fairly balanced. In the same month, it was declared both “the best-written musical autobiography since Bob Dylan’s Chronicles and “a heavy tome, utterly devoid of insight, warmth, wisdom or likeability.” But with Moz’s first foray into fiction, you’d be hard-pressed to find any press as glowing as that first quote—actually, you’d be hard-pressed to find any good press at all, and that’s because it’s truly difficult to read List of the Lost and call it anything other than what it is: a real steamer.
Like its novella-length word count, List of the Lost’s premise is developed enough to confirm that it, in fact, exists: Ezra, Nails, Harri and Justy make up a Boston-based track relay team in the ‘70s. While training for an event, the four stumble upon a wretch—a homeless “elderly imp” with “breath that could kill a team of horses, and hands like withered leaves”—who tries to grope Ezra. The action prompts Ezra to retaliate, and his reflexive jab kills the wretch. The relay team is cursed, and readers spend a hundred-page stretch watching each member creep toward his demise.
Morrissey’s Autobiography on display at Rough Trade NYC. Getty Images
As Morrissey was quick to point out in Autobiography, critics’ knee-jerk reaction toward his work has not been overwhelmingly positive. This never prevented fans from developing a meaningful relationship with most of his musical catalog, with and without help from The Smiths, and it should be noted that I’m a self-declared fan who paid money to both A) read Morrissey’s Autobiography for pleasure and B) take in his most recent performance in Detroit, Michigan. But unlike Morrissey’s most harshly reviewed musical work, this debut novella stinks in a way that, hopefully, will never be considered palatable or gain a second wind in the public eye.
Really, the thing sucks that bad.
But when criticizing List of the Lost, online readers dug in with an obvious pot-shot. In small doses, his prose was rough to ingest (and in large doses, it’s headache-inducing). But the loudest criticism of List of the Lost stemmed from a paragraph that existed free of context: BIG surprise, Morrissey has an awkward relationship with sex. This was a subject that was just barely touched on in his Autobiography, and even less-so if you lived in the United States, but Morrissey doesn’t do himself any favors with List’s prose, which pretty much speaks for itself. The following paragraph is List’s big sex scene, which takes place between the book’s protagonist, Ezra, and his love interest, Eliza.
“At this, Eliza and Ezra rolled together into the one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as they playfully bit and pulled at each other in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.”
It’s cringe-worthy, sure. That paragraph alone could significantly hack the average fingernail length at any coffee shop fiction reading, but one might argue that—awkward sex and all—part of the reason we read a novel by Morrissey is because we want to exist, to play, to explore within his mind. That’s an idea echoed through The End of the Tour, a film based on David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which details the final leg of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest tour. One of its many conversations explores this idea that, within however many pages we have with an author, we’re there to spend time within her or his head.
So I argue that the problem with Morrissey isn’t his odd outlook on sex, his constant interjections on animal welfare and Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill and the Western education system. In fact, these are things we should expect to some degree—after all, it goes without saying that List of the Lost wouldn’t go anywhere near a publisher like Penguin without a name like Morrissey attached.
No, Moz’s List of the Lost doesn’t fail from his virgin-esque sex descriptions, but because of a rejection of fundamentals of fiction writing that, at times, feels flat-out narcissistic.
Here, it’s a stretch to say List follows a story structure—though, in ignoring it, it feels as if Morrissey’s telling readers that he’s above puny things like plot or storylines. Its dialog ranges from ridiculous—“‘I am a booze-infuzed orgy,’ is Eliza’s reverse-twist”—to flat-out antagonistic, with The Wretch speaking five unbroken pages of dialog before kicking the bucket. His use of description and details are less for the reader’s immersion in the scene and more for what feels like Morrissey cashing in on a bet with a buddy, something like: “I bet you can’t include alliteration in half of a novel’s sentences…” He flips between present and past-tense with the ease of Doc Brown. With List, Moz’s prose is confusing at best, and flat-out gibberish at worst, and my own copy is littered with my own ink-underlined passages. It looks a little something like Little Larry’s homework in The Big Lebowski. Almost always, one word is scrawled next to the passage: What? or Huh?
Here are a few more!
At such an unavoidable call they shall be minus all that they now have, here and today, at ease in the confidence of their physical weightlessness, united in athletic skill from which they beg no acquittal.
Mother was a forgotten saint of indestructibly strong core, ready for any sudden stirring to help the hopeless, psychologizing over vats of spaghetti and the donated suits of the war dead, monastically freezing concentrated facial expressions as she endured pointless chats with the socially disconnected whose lives had all but exhausted them out of existence.
And then there’s context. Understanding List as a piece of fiction isn’t aided by reading Autobiography…it’s required! After all, Autobiography acts as a decent primer for why all of List’s protagonists have a distain for meat production, or why its authority figures like Track Coach Rims are flatly declared to be bumbling, pathetic morons through the course of its rant-like paragraphs. The characters that actually have a chance at being that, characters, still fall flat—lacking so few recurring traits of their own, they become defined by their labels within the text: Ezra, Nails, Harri, Justy, Eliza. As a result, List plays out almost more like an outtake reel from Autobiography’s long list of complaints—but an outtake reel that was later dressed up with a plot, characters, and dialog.
List of the Lost is the kind of piece that, even in draft form, had to make early readers squirm—those unfortunate friends, acquaintances, editors who had to read this turd knowing that Morrissey’s looming follow-up question was in their future: “So, what’d you think?” My guess is, their opinions—honest or not—didn’t make much of a difference: List of the Lost reads like a book untouched by a caring editor’s hand. And that’s how the book’s presented, too: the flimsy, thin paperback feels un-fussed over and galley-esque, as if the publisher was as eager to move on as future readers. Because thanks to our novelist—“intimate and indiscreet” with “pompous, prophetic airs”—we’re left with a piece that will do anything but delight readers.
Morrissey’s List of the Lost is available now in the U.K. An American printing has not yet been announced.