Review: ‘Sugar Street’ by Jonathan Dee

Sugar Street

Sugar Street follows an anonymous White man on the run from his own identity. Delivered in the form of a condensed, breathless countdown to the inevitability of consequence, the story embodies an electrifying subversion of the very rationale behind society.

Apart from his race, the protagonist is left intentionally nondescript. Both his interior and his newfound exterior lives begin on the first page, allowing us to witness a unique sort of baptism. And yet, the humor with which he responds to his surroundings marks him with a distinctive voice. 

His sprint from the hyper-surveillance of the world is revved up by brisk critiques of its condition. Despite this, every craggy edge settles into a whole, preserving the story’s heady momentum. Dee takes a rather maddening concept, one lying dormant in our subconscious, and molds it into an oppressive desire. Consequently, to demand consent is to declare yourself condemnable. And that’s exactly how the protagonist lives.

In an attempt to smother his own identity, he suffocates the present. Everything is stripped back and rudimentary, from his living space to his manner. The observational writing style feeds both the story’s continued glide forward, and its simultaneous unraveling. That’s because an acute sense of hysteria accompanies the feeling of being wedged inside a mind on high alert.

Propelled by the steady trickling down of the protagonist’s budget, it recasts itself as dread. And, much like the white noise of the internet from which the man flees, this tension creates a piercing high that runs like a vein through Sugar Street.

The more time we spend with the protagonist, the more elaborate the coating of his thoughts appears. From conversational to confessional, his words carry an undertone of mystery — suspicion, even. And yet, there’s a lyricism to them that both beguiles and fascinates.

In the spirit of switching from the internet of things to the internet of senses, as the protagonist puts it, his existence is whittled down to comments and frenzied reactions. And so, passivity takes on the function of an auxiliary fuel system. The path it directs him onto is riddled with humanity’s unspoken destitutions. We could even say that it covers the broad spectrum of its irreparability.

Surprisingly, though, his observations about racial injustice, poverty, data-driven invigilation, narcissism, and more don’t seem unduly pessimistic. Daring and sardonic, yes, but also emboldening. In fact, Sugar Street’s mad brilliance lies in the way it strips us of our delusions.

The pointlessness of many of our behaviors is whetted, from appealing to governments for equality and compassion — the very mindsets that threaten them — to spending our lives toiling away for the sake of a system keeping us enslaved. The world we inhabit in Sugar Street is, therefore, in the end stages of democracy, capitalism, and liberalism. 

The fact that it mirrors reality is obvious, but edges are still purposefully blurred. And since the story occupies both a fictional and a factual plane, the author lets us hold onto the illusion of its inauthenticity. In this way, we’re offered a taste of the protagonist’s freedom. Our actions will either mimic the closing of a news tab — a snappy disconnection from somebody else’s pain — or it will set Sugar Street’s message bouncing around the mind.

As we trudge on, the agony of being a piece of data with a traceable, unshakeable mark on history gives way to exhilarating reclusiveness. Inaction turns into the purest form of rebellion. And yet, despite his strive toward anonymity, the protagonist is ravenous for connection; one of his own choosing.

His emotional engagement with the fates of the schoolchildren that pass by his window introduces an element of bleak, unrequited tenderness. Here, too, we see how appearances affect both the world’s view of us, and our own self-worth. Privilege, a recurring theme in Dee’s work, is scrutinized with impeccable self-awareness; especially its subliminal mechanisms.

We may be aware of our thought processes, but this understanding doesn’t alter the way they affect how we function. Similarly, the protagonist is shocked by people’s inability to recall meeting him. This idea, which achieves its climax during a savage interaction with a law officer, is crippling. What’s more, Dee’s ability to convey the sound of a spirit splintering inside the body is uncanny.

This is where society undergoes a particularly merciless dissection. The fact that we’re animals, merely another detail of Nature’s evolving form, exposes the instincts that drive us. And which, coincidentally, ensure that society will never function as it should.

Fear leads to humiliation, which in turn fosters anger. Power betrays no tendency toward self-sabotage, making all forms of inequality its footing. Human nature, with its self-preoccupation, proves impossible to peel, doomed to rot from the inside out. 

As a result, Sugar Street reads a lot like a diary written mid-apocalypse. The cataclysm we’re witnessing may concern identity, but the impression it leaves is one of society devouring itself. And, in a tantalizing twist, the protagonist becomes the Petri dish, in which humankind is examined.

At one point, he states that he’s moving in the direction of the unknown within himself; a somewhat foreboding thought, one reminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

After that, his life, as stifled and warped as it seems, just sort of happens. His things wander around, changing their place of belonging much like him. It’s not until his collision with his past self that his passivity is challenged one last time.

We’re left with a curious impasse. The man, whose headspace we’ve made our own, customized obscenely with both judgment and sentiment, is suddenly — violently — revealed to us as a stranger, as physical to others as he’s intangible to us.

This turn of events is partly expected from the beginning, of course, but still manages to feel like a betrayal of discernment. In this way, Dee brilliantly reinforces the idea of the fallacy of our prepossessions. 

Publication date: September 13, 2022 (Grove Atlantic)

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