A common narrative persists around millennials who choose non-traditional employment: If you don’t follow the well-trod path (e.g., doctor, banker, lawyer, heir) you should, at the very least, be prepared for a difficult life, and accept that you had a choice—you just chose incorrectly. There is a counter-narrative, even more insidious, wherein the successful sell their privilege without compromising their aspirations.
This counter-narrative is at the center of The Transition, the somewhat dystopian first novel from English poet Luke Kennard. Equal parts humorous and incisive, The Transition sets Karl Temperly — a thirty-something, underemployed Brit with a master’s in Metaphysical Poetry — against a cadre of social eugenicists operating a government subsidized self-improvement program in the near future.
Like many self-employed in this digital age, Karl scrapes together a living performing the odd job for a multitude of remote, sometimes anonymous, employers. It is one such employer that employs an unwitting Karl to help him commit large-scale fraud. Karl is subsequently arrested and given an opportunity to participate in “The Transition” rather than go to prison.
The Transition program is like a house flip, where struggling millennials live with an older, more financially and professionally secure couple to learn the arts of adulthood. Every investment into a Transition protégé is paid back over time through ownership stakes in whatever the rehabbed individual goes on to do in the future. Usually a post-Transition venture is tightly aligned with gentrification, purchasing a building in a low-income neighborhood and turning it into a quiet place to meditate.
“This is where being male, middle class, and white comes into its own. Nothing but safety nets,” says Kentor, his accountant and former classmate who sets him up with The Transition.
Karl’s family’s safety net materializes as a comfortable attic apartment in a Georgian terrace belonging to Transition graduates, Stu and Janna. Shortly after Karl and his wife Genevieve (an elementary school teacher with bipolar disorder) move in, the lifestyle rehabilitation begins.
Much of The Transition is built on the idea that extended or delayed adolescence has stunted the potential of a generation of educated adults. They are incapable, or unwilling, to manage what’s expected of adults: salaried employment, a budget, purchasing a house, exercising, reading the newspaper. Disillusionment will not be tolerated.
When delivering the Temperly’s newspaper reading assignment, Stu corrects Karl’s reluctance, “The problem you’ve got is that you don’t feel worthy of newspapers. Be honest. A part of you still feels that newspapers are for grown-ups and that you aren’t grown-ups.” What Kennard does so effectively throughout The Transition is interweave reasonable observations with more chilling ones. At one point, Stu says to Karl, “If there’s a broken system you try to improve yourself so it no longer applies to you.”
There is a sometimes-overt paternalism underlying the conflict in The Transition. Certain elements are reminiscent of Dave Eggers’s The Circle — a seemingly benevolent organization attempts to solve the woes of the world while in reality it exists only to further its control and self-interests. We all know that exercise and healthy eating are good for us, we just don’t want to be forced into it by an organization that stands to benefit from our compliance. From the outset, Karl resists the pull of the program’s too-good-to-be-true template for a successful life, while Genevieve proves to be more susceptible to a well-structured, predictable life.
While The Transition does a good job dissecting class conflicts and complaints that will be familiar to many younger readers, it is decidedly about the middle-class situation. Many of the protégés are successful, well-educated individuals who made a few bad decisions. For most, it feels like a subconscious rejection of the privilege bestowed on them by sociopolitical happenstance. “Maybe I don’t want to be on the tiny winning side,” says Karl.
What is perhaps most disturbing about The Transition is that programs like the one it depicts already exist. The Optimum Performance Institute is an expensive rehab program serving upper-middle-class “golden children” that promises to “address the issues that are holding young adults back and instill the skills and habits to launch lives forward.” This is a sentiment that could’ve been torn from The Transition’s brochure. Just like the best dystopian fiction—think Animal Farm or Fahrenheit 451—The Transition encourages us to heighten our awareness of and resist forces that push us to act against our best interests.
The Transition by Luke Kennard
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published January 9, 2018
Luke Kennard is the author of several collections of poetry. He won an Eric Gregory Award in 2005 and was short-listed for the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2007 and for the International Dylan Thomas Prize in 2017. The Transition is his first novel.
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Now only one cat (😿). Still too many books. @ecreipsmith