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Joe Stretch – Manchester’s next major novelist?

Jonathan Schofield interviews Joe Stretch about his first powerful and shocking Manchester based novel, Friction

Written by . Published on February 5th 2008.

Joe Stretch – Manchester’s next major novelist?

It’s good when people are what they do. Or rather when the looks and the character fit the job and the life. You want builders to be burly, pr girls to be flirty, bankers to be steady, food critics to be bon viveurs.

In the novel he pushes the boredom as far as it can go in beautifully crafted sentences, until the whole thing explodes nastily in your face.

Joe Stretch is perfect. He’s singer and lyricist with Manchester band Performance and he’s about to go national and international with his first novel Friction.

He’s got dark hair, high cheekbones, pale skin, a slender frame, is 6ft 2’ and mid-twenties. It’s a cracking ensemble with something of a thirties poet about it, or maybe a character from an Evelyn Waugh novel. It’s rounded off by that incredible name which, by the way, is his own.

We meet in a city centre restaurant. A couple of tables away Manchester International Festival Director, Alex Poots, is dining with Royal Exchange Artistic Director Braham Murray. Manchester, it seems, has become a Parisian coffee-shop full of artists and impresarios.

Naturally we talk first about books, “I love Saul Bellow’s Herzog,” says Stretch. “I think John Banville is a master craftsman, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled is tremendous."

We chat geography and background as well. The Lake District, “Pretty much a perfect landscape. My mum lives in Burton-in-Kendal, I go there to relax and write.” School, “I was head boy at the Queen Elizabeth Grammar in Kirkby Lonsdale. At that time I thought politics would be my future.” And young Master Stretch’s persuasion? “Marxism.”

In 2000 he came to Manchester, went to University and joined a band called Performance. Their style and attitude got everybody excited but their first album lacked substance. They’re working on another now – “unfinished business,” he says.

At the same time Joe Stretch was writing. And he was good. His work was being touted around publishers. He chose Random House and their imprint Vintage.

The first novel, Friction, set in Manchester, is due out on 6 March. It’s an easy read but it’ll make the reader uneasy. Or even queasy. This is a hellhole vision of empty-headed young people bored out of their skulls seeking sensation to fill in the blanks.

Hardly original – played out in a zillion movies, songs and plays - but Stretch brings something new to the ‘what-shall-we-do-now-we’ve-done-that’ party. He pushes the boredom as far as it can go in beautifully crafted sentences, and with a lot of belly-laugh humour and spiky satire, until the whole thing explodes nastily in your face. The final path to finding ‘brand new ways of having sex’ is deeply disturbing, grotesque.

But there’s a logic to it, a horrible progression to the final taboo fetish. “The book has been described as immoral, but that’s a simple reading of it,” Stretch says, showing his politics. “The novel shows the implications of the free market, the consumer world, the pursuit and sale of leisure. I think the message is moral.”

Once upon a time the sex scenes in Friction might have shocked even the hardened sex-addict. There’s one hetro buggery scene which is particularly desolate - the couple has done everything else and the girl is paying her debt to her man for stealing his money to buy designer goods. Sex and shopping so to speak. But in the age of the www.filth, the shock is reduced – which is sort of the point the novel is making. The subtitle of Friction is, ‘the pornography of everyday life’. Spot on.

Spot on also, is the way he uses the novel to savage how people are beginning to act as though they've learnt how to behave from TV and film not from direct experience. "I got to University just as the first Big Brother was making an impact," says Stretch. "I couldn’t believe it. People were slouching round the common rooms and bars as though they were being filmed twenty four hours. It was unnerving."

Of course as with all novelists there’s something of the night about Stretch. But he wouldn’t be a proper novelist without it. To imagine, or live, the dark side of life, possess it and put it on record requires a certain oddness.

There is another aspect which nags. You get the idea that he’s living at arm’s length, watching himself perform. The name of his band is no accident. There’s an endearing, very English, uncertainty with him to match the lyrical swagger. Or maybe this is just a well-thought through plan on the road to fame. An adopted atitude like the rest.

Keep an eye on Joe Stretch. Friction is the first of a trilogy of novels centred on Manchester, the others, provisionally, are Wildlife and Demoralised. If the quality of the writing and the ideas behind this first novel are anything to go by the boy’s going places.

“We’re on Earth,” says Joe Stretch, “we’re anxious, and we hoot and we scratch.” In other words sing and write. At present he’s advancing on all fronts.

Friction is out on 6 March. You can listen to Joe Stretch and his band Performance here

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KarenFebruary 5th 2008.

It's about time we had a good contemporary Manchester novelist. I don't find people such as Gwendoline Riley at all good. Just annoying. Style with out substance. I hope this guy is as good as you say, even if he is shocking in the theme of the novel.

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