The Arena of the Unwell is a novel about a music-loving guy in London who is drawn into a toxic relationship with two older guys in the music scene. Noah is twenty-two, works in a record shop (when he can force himself to be awake there), spends his nights at gigs and pubs, and is coming to the end of his allocated therapy sessions. After he and his friend Mairead go to a secret comeback gig by their favourite band Smiling Politely, Noah runs into Dylan, a bartender he’s wanted to approach for ages. Soon, Noah is drawn into the complicated relationship between Dylan and his flatmate Fraser, and as everything else falls apart around him, Noah is drawn into a co-dependent world, all as Smiling Politely prepare to release their first album in years.
I really enjoyed Konemann’s non-fiction book The Appendix, but I was particularly drawn to this book from the premise, particularly the promise of it being suffused with a grimy indie music scene, and that did not disappoint. Though the actual band in the book are at arms’ length, as we see them through interviews and news coverage as Noah would, the book feels deeply part of the music world, and in how important to basically all elements of Noah’s life this is, from work to fun to friends to love. The offhand comments and jokes (like Mairead’s girlfriend and Noah’s coworker Jenny having been an emo) really build up a picture, and one that makes you both want to be at a gig and really not, seeing as Noah isn’t exactly using music in a healthy way a lot of the time.
The book is told from Noah’s first person perspective, with the previously mentioned press snippets about Smiling Politely intercut (I very much enjoyed that these were often cut off like real news sites if you weren’t a paying member). As a lot of the book is about mental health and a toxic relationship, it can be intense, but also funny. The relationships between Noah, Fraser, and Dylan are really well depicted, with the reader able to feel each cutting moment and see how they were hurting each other. I really enjoy books that do co-dependent, messed up relationships well, and this is a great example, and being from Noah’s perspective meant you saw how much he started to ignore everyone else when he really needed them.
A really notable element of the book is the depiction of queerness in the indie scene, whether that’s Noah trying to navigate the fact all the bands are singing about women they think wronged them, his repeated belief that he can’t fit into any gay world because he doesn’t fit in, or the hints of how the music scene shown has more space for guys who are apparently straight but maybe down for something with a guy than actual queer people. Queerness is just part of the novel, and that feels refreshing and not something I’ve seen in this kind of genre (though, admittedly, I’m not sure what kind of genre it is—music scene novel?).
A coming of age novel for people who like or came of age themselves deeply into music, The Arena of the Unwell spirals the reader into not only sticky floors and spilt pints, but a hard-to-put-down toxic relationship amidst the realities of NHS cuts for mental health services. It puts you on the streets of Camden and leaves you with a sense of what might have changed or stayed the same since the earlier heyday of indie bands.