Review: ‘The Arena of the Unwell’ by Liam Konemann

The Arena of the Unwell

The Arena of the Unwell follows young Noah as he navigates a world of musical mania, mental uproar, obsession, desire, loneliness, and destitution. Deep in the throes of depression, he crosses paths with Dylan, a bartender he’s been eyeing for quite some time, and things seemingly start to look up.

Older by a few years, the man appears self-composed enough to both provoke and nurture Noah’s fractured state of mind. But wherever he goes, Fraser follows. More than friends, but not quite lovers, the two men heedlessly drag Noah into a toxic, warped relationship that singes everything it touches.

Konemann’s writing is electric. Understated yet sensory, it transfigures the moment a body becomes just skin, offering wayward reflections an aftertaste that taints memory. Drawing on his experience as a music journalist, Konemann nudges the notes left on the page, outlining both music’s build and its various undulations.

What’s more, by distilling its beat, he pulls sound taut over our ears. The low moods of his cast of toiling twentysomethings likewise draw on the nippy London air, pulling fragments of the insular over the narrative.

And as Noah’s spirals push us further down the tunnels of his mind, never quite hooking the external to the internal, we endure the same itch to connect; a hunger that seems insurmountable in the void that dispossesses all form. And yet, there’s a youthful charm to be gleaned in the thick of this ennui. Noah’s sense of humor is relatively deadpan and outrageously fun, countering the contortions of his longing with quiet ferocity.

But mental health is arguably the central presence within the narrative. It’s both glaringly in sight and sidestepped at every turn, an abstract punch that defies dimension. As a result, Noah’s sense of powerlessness melts the ground from under his step, leaving him slipping from one bed to another in the hope that he’ll be seized and held onto for a while. 

Naturally, from this state of want emerges painful desperation. Bad relationships are seen as something marginally better than directionless yearning, bad sex seems better than feeling undesired. Noah dominates this in-between, suffering from the impotence it worships.

His plunge into a relationship not of his making is a disturbing thing to behold, as is the already fickle world made all the more volatile by the tincture of alcohol, narcotics, and poverty-fed morality. In this respect, Noah’s stumblings transform into a sort of odyssey towards reconciliation with life; a pilgrimage we stalk with bated breath.

And it’s certainly not a smooth journey. Though hounded by various woes, Noah still manages to come across as self-pitying and willfully self-destructive. This quality is as maddening as it is, undoubtedly, universal. But as our protagonist gorges on disaster to escape the vacuum of the mundane, his cries for help often turn peevish. Youth isn’t always all that appealing under the surface, after all.

Still, Noah’s displacement within his own reality points to a fascinating subversion of the romance he pursues. Teeming with his hopeless sentiments towards Fraser, the story doubles down on the tragic focal point of Noah’s love story — or stories, to be more faithful to the complexity of feeling.

But if we were to redirect the spotlight onto either Dylan or Fraser, we’d be treated to a far more orthodox narrative. Crammed into Noah’s flailing form as we are, we’re left scrutinizing a more sacrosanct pairing, sending ripples that tickle, never topple.

As a result, it’s both expected and frustrating that some secrets are allowed to hover mid-air, remaining unsolved and untethered. Did Richard ever take his revenge? What happened to the envelope with the pilfered money? It seems that not every question mark can be countered with a full stop. That way, the mystery gets to live on.

Publication date: May 26, 2022 (404 Ink)


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