The raw truth of contemporary society is explored in Sibylle Berg's award-winning, 25-week bestselling European book GRIME.
By Manchester's Finest | February 8th '23
When you think of a novel that takes place in a not-too-distant dystopian future, where do you imagine it being set? For Swiss-German author Sibylle Berg, it’s Rochdale. The North Manchester town is the backdrop for her bestselling novel, the English version of which has just been released in the UK.
The author and playwright is one of the most celebrated contemporary writers in the German-speaking world. Their critically acclaimed novel, GRIME, which has spent 25 weeks on European bestseller lists, is a dystopian satire that serves as “a ruthless indictment of contemporary society and a manifesto of rebellion”.
Set in Rochdale, GRIME mirrors the reality of many towns across Britain where poverty, violence, and squalor are the consequences of the current political decisions being made. The novel, written four years ago, is a multi-voice story of four teenagers haphazardly brought together by individual tragedy and a shared love of grime music, the genre that replaced punk as the voice of the angry and dispossessed.
Despite the increasing sophistication of an authoritarian surveillance state, the four teens set out to take revenge on those they hold responsible for their misery. However, what starts out as a teen hit squad evolves into a makeshift family as they attempt to create a home on the fringes of society.
In this stylistically innovative epic, Berg explores the current hot-button issues such as climate change, artificial intelligence, right-wing populism, and the expansion of surveillance and their impact on the world. This dystopian satire is a merciless and surgically precise evisceration of neoliberalism, but beneath its rage and brutality beats a deeply human heart
The German-language edition of ‘GRIME’ won the Swiss Book Prize. Image: Griffin books
GRIME is a novel that is sure to leave an impact on its readers and the residents of Manchester and Rochdale are in for a treat with the upcoming launch tour.
Get your hands on a copy of GRIME for a thought-provoking exploration of society and the consequences of our actions.
Review by Ron Charles
December 13, 2022 at 11:28 a.m. EST
(Laura Padilla Castellanos/The Washington Post)
When Sibylle Berg’s new novel appeared in Germany, it was titled “GRM,” with an obscene English subtitle that refers to both an esoteric programming language and the story’s effect on your brain.
For release in the United States, the book has been retitled “Grime,” and its subtitle is gone. But traces of that early-1990s computer code remain laced through the text. And the story is still primed to mess with your brain.
Winner of the 2019 Swiss Book Prize, this is a novel so caustic it should be printed with hydrochloric acid. Berg, a Swiss writer and social activist, sprays her fury across the whole landscape of technological and economic manias that are rendering the 21st century intolerable. And Tim Mohr has done a remarkable job of translating Berg’s hilarious, hectoring, hyperbolic prose, which isn’t so much propulsive as relentless.
(St. Martin’s Press)
If you’re weary of comfortable satire that only confirms your ironic disdain for modern life, “Grime” may be the novel for you. The brave new world that Berg describes offers a critique of neoliberalism that’s downright sadistic. It’s like watching a very bloody, unfair cage fight with Ayn Rand: Atlas Slugged. Naturally, Europeans adored “Grime” and kept it on the bestseller list for months; in the United States, this ordeal is sure to sell dozens of copies.
Almost every chapter begins with a mini dossier on another character, delineated by such traits as “Threat Potential,” “Ethnicity,” “Fetish” and “Health Risk.” That structure suggests the state’s total surveillance of the populace, but the form is continuously deconstructed by Berg’s acerbic commentary.
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At the center of “Grime” are four horribly abused children in Rochdale, a town in Manchester, England, that Berg calls “a municipal embodiment of brain damage.” If that grim joke offends you, bail out now. Political correctness is only one of the many cherished attitudes that Berg flays.
Don — short for Donatella — wants to be a boy and has been “furious since birth.” Her only pleasure comes from grime, that “raging, filthy music for children leading filthy lives.” Her three equally alienated friends are Karen, who has albinism and survived a mass shooting; Peter, a Polish immigrant abandoned by his mother; and Hannah, who lost her parents to suicide and medical malpractice.
Early in the novel, these four children, raised on a toxic diet of neglect and porn, are variously exploited, raped and beaten. The poorly staffed agencies charged with protecting them do nothing, because, let’s face it, there is no profit in protecting unwanted children. But Don and her friends are one another’s saviors. “They’d found their family,” Berg writes. “They had recognized each other. As outsiders, as fringe phenomena, as outcasts.”
Sibylle Berg. (Katharina Lütscher)
Inspired by their newfound alliance, they devise a plan: “Let’s make a hit list,” they say. “We’ll take revenge on everyone who’s hurt us.”
Ingenious murders carried out by a quartet of young misfits squatting in an abandoned building could easily sustain a 440-page thriller — or a Netflix series. But Berg has something else in mind. Indeed, the murder plot runs so faintly through this giant novel that it’s no more than a watermark on the pages.
Instead, Berg offers up a breathless riff on Western culture as it devolves into rampant xenophobia, unbridled privatization and online addiction. The story is set just one or two more crises into our dismal future, when “the yearning for understanding gave way to the rage of the ignorant.” The entire middle class has been evaporated by robots and artificial intelligence. In the name of greater efficiency, all public services have been sold off to corporations. The myths of personal choice and market efficiency have been allowed to ravage health care, education and law enforcement. Universal surveillance has eliminated crime, and a dynamic system of “social points” has increased recycling, courteous driving and mental illness. In short, “Grime” is Dave Eggers’s “The Circle” if “The Circle” were interesting.
Few references to America appear in this novel, but it’s not hard to notice the relevance to our current plight. “When you use the instruments of democracy to completely pulverize trust in democracy — that is, put absolutely rubbish individuals in top positions, instigate civil wars, incite the so-called good against the so-called bad by means of Nudging, by the manipulation of their goddamn brains via devices, social media, false information, when you render the press utterly untrustworthy, when you encourage brutality, Nazis, ignorance, and fascism — in short, when you perpetrate insane chaos,” you arrive at the future Berg outlines here.
The economy described in “Grime” has devolved into a Hobbesian hellscape of ever-more-humiliating gig jobs as everyone struggles to supplement the state’s universal basic income payment. Men, real men, White men, have nothing left but their simmering resentments toward women, Blackpeople and immigrants — that whole mass of undeserving usurpers. “Everyone is nervous and phlegmatic at the same time,” the narrator says. Things grow so bad that even beating up refugees and molesting children fail to raise their spirits. Fortunately, the popular Dream Island app helps people commit suicide.
Such nihilism thumps through these pages without mercy; the phrase “no more” appears almost two dozen times — as in no more social workers, no more birds, no more water, no more work, no more time, no more dreams. And if you don’t get the message on the first go around — or the 10th or the 20th — don’t worry: Berg will be back to slap you upside the head again a few pages later.
“Markets will straighten everything out,” the narrator scoffs. “The water supply had just been privatized. Meaning. The price of water had quadrupled, and because as a result the natives began to use less water the new owners made losses which were to be offset by tax money from the natives. Beautiful. On it went.” And went and went and went for hundreds of pages. “Everything led to one goal,” Berg writes, “which had now nearly been reached. A paralyzed, happy, brainless populace.”
Like Patricia Lockwood’s recent novel, “No One Is Talking About This,” “Grime” offers a devastating evaluation of social media, a realm now so essential that “humans seem to have developed a hate for their existence beyond the net.” But unlike Lockwood’s novel, which gleams with the author’s poetic precision, “Grime” often reads like a routine being workshopped in front of us. Every few dozen promising sentences eventually produce a perfect one like, “Online you feel as if everything hinges on your own deranged opinion.”
Then there are moments when Berg’s exasperation seems just too exhausting to sustain. “Yep, polio is back,” the narrator sighs at one point. “And it’s a mutation that isn’t being vaccinated against because generally nothing is vaccinated against anymore, don’t ask.”
That “don’t ask” — so much of this young century’s self-inflicted tragedy is crammed into that eye-rolling dismissal. But Berg isn’t giving up, isn’t giving us a pass. Honestly, as arduous as “Grime” sometimes feels, no other book has so thoroughly rattled me about where we’re headed.
*Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.*
By Sibylle Berg. Translated from the German by Tim Mohr.
St. Martin’s Griffin. 448 pp. $22
On 27th December, Sibylle Berg’s novel GRIME will be released in the US, the UK, and Ireland, in an assured and suitably acerbic translation by Tim Mohr. Written and originally published in German as GRM Brainfuck in 2019, the title won the Swiss Book Prize; academics have analysed it already; and GRIME is the first of Berg’s many novels to be translated into English with a mainstream publisher.
It seems fitting, then, that the book is set in Britain a few years into the future – even if it’s a bleak state that Berg imagines. The timing of the launch is sorely perfect, too. Following strikes set for the Christmas season, and deep into a dark, contemporary winter of discontent, a story will hit shop shelves and booksellers’ sites about four neglected teenagers living on a council estate in a fictive version of Rochdale, Greater Manchester. Don’t worry, though: at over 430 pages, GRIME offers good value for money amid a cost-of-living crisis.
The town of Rochdale is described in depressing terms; its closed shops and derelict cinema have been handed a death sentence by digitalisation. The place is no outlier in its supposedly grim streets, though, nor is the portrayal some prejudice appropriated from southern English snobbism. On the contrary, the description aims its fire at the neoliberal order and those in power across the Western world who have left communities behind. Here, grime music strikes a chord with the principal four characters. That genre – like Berg’s narrative – creatively vents real anger at a society that, apparently, will become thoroughly privatised. Soon we shall live not in a mere surveillance state, but in a dictatorship enabled by microchipping (among other technologies). Oh, and the newly crowned king has just abdicated.
Commissioned to interview the master of socially critical, sardonic German prose, I’m sitting in what feels like my second home, Manchester Airport, drinking a lukewarm coffee looking out at damp tarmac that is clouded over. I tap out my first email in what will become a banterous back-and-forth with “Bille B”, as Berg will sign herself off warmly. Otherwise she’s “Sibylle, Boss”: the self-ironic diva. I pause to ask myself how I can strike up conversation with an author I have a long personal history with, though she does not know it. As a frustrated undergraduate, desperate to appear avant-garde, I wrote my BA thesis on critical perspectives on pornography and Berg’s novel Sex II, only for it to be marked approvingly.
As a young lecturer, I set excerpts from her novel Ende gut (End happy) as translation exercises. I may have felt awkward about then discussing colloquialisms for fetishes and drugs with students, but they didn’t. Indeed, what’s remarkable about Sibylle Berg is that she’s a provocateur par excellence, yet popular despite (or for) being outrageous, offensive. Elfriede Jelinek meets Will Self. Acceptable, despite the swearing. Unforgiving and funny about the system; empathetic and incisive when it comes to individual characters, who tend to be from society’s marginalised groups and identities. Their representation embodies an argument for progressive politics. A national treasure? She’d welcome that badge with a smile, I’m sure, while rolling her eyes. But how should I open an interview with such an author without appearing embarrassingly fawning, arousing suspicion and raising an eyebrow, or without being mocked too much?
I decide to simply ask Sibylle where we would meet if we conducted the interview in person. I find it hard to imagine that we’d take a stroll in the park and feed the swans, so I mentally prepare myself for some seedy end-up-club with which a party night comes to a close. “We’d meet at the Hotel Lautner in Palm Springs”, she soon replies. “I’ve always wanted to go there, and being totally environmentally conscious I’d fly you in on my private jet. Oh, don’t thank me – it’d all be paid for by my charitable foundation, tax free. Help for Historians in Need. It’s registered in Guernsey, you know. Or as far as I’m concerned, we could go to Bath – that’s if you don’t want to fly. I’ve never been to Bath.” Quick-witted and sharp, Bille B, the Boss, had well and truly broken the ice. I retorted that buying an old bus, painting it, and naming her Sibylle before driving through the desert to the springs would also work fine for me.
What follows is a translation of our email chat about GRIME, the state of the world, and Sibylle Berg’s hopes and dreams – shot through with sarcasm. Fans can hear her reading from GRIME live, together with the grime artists who gave shape to her story, in London in early January. Dates, as they say, will be announced shortly.
Seán Williams (SW): Your book is sold as dystopian fiction. Why is it set in England?
Over a period of two years I was in England time and again. In Liverpool, Manchester, Salford, in Rochdale and in many other towns and cities in the north. I had hundreds of conversations, and studied the seventy per cent of the country that isn’t expensive property in central London bought by foreigners, or the film sets of Oxford.
Sibylle Berg (SB): I’d translate “dystopia” as being aroused by decline. But perhaps it’s also just the term we use for everything that we want to distance ourselves from. Or merely some buzz word. And yet – unfortunately – everything in the book is true. Or it all become true in the last 3 years, anyway. I must say that I’m quite taken with my visionary qualities.
Why England: well, they invented capitalism, were in the vanguard of privatization, and led the way in dealing mercilessly with people who are no longer needed to keep turbo-capitalism moving. Even if English people like to see the situation differently. England’s a prototypical Western country.
Before I settled on the location, there were simply questions that I wanted to answer for myself. Such as: how does surveillance that’s constantly expanding, how does the pulverisation of the private sphere relate to the crises of capitalism, which are stacking up on top of one another? What do capitalists actually want, beyond – well, producing more capital? And what happens to the moribund masses of people, masses getting bigger and bigger, those from a pre-digital age? I quickly arrived at the experimental laboratory that is England.
And that was the time BEFORE the final exit from the EU, the country was nearby, I could speak the language (just about), and England is a European, paradigmatic country for privatisation and surveillance, as I’ve said. Oh, and England has the best secret service.
Over a period of two years I was in England time and again. In Liverpool, Manchester, Salford, in Rochdale and in many other towns and cities in the north. I had hundreds of conversations, and studied the seventy per cent of the country that isn’t expensive property in central London bought by foreigners, or the film sets of Oxford. I spent a long time talking to academics, and was out and about with social workers, scouts, investigative journalists, and people from the places I then described. I had contacts and a plan of action – just like anyone who has an idea of what they’re doing. Namely that I wanted to know how Western societies are developing. Digitalisation has changed our lives, and many seem to be paralysed by its exponential acceleration, and by the feeling that an extremely rich minority wages a war against the poor parts of the world’s population. England leads the way in Europe in both respects – in implementing digitisation and in seemingly doing away with poor parts of the population. The answers that I came across are perhaps unsettling. Unfortunately they are thoroughly realistic, though.
SW: Don’t you think that the image of post-Brexit Britain as a landscape of catastrophe has become a bit of a fetish in German media?
SB: I’ve spotted that tendency right across Europe. People needed a deterrent, in order to preserve the construct of the European Commission. I find it very useful to think of the idea of Europe holistically. The EU as it exists now and as it’s structured is deeply neoliberal. Growth and profit are written into the statutes. From that point of view, Britain simply switched from one neoliberal political direction to another. I don’t know how much of the current crisis in England can be ascribed to Brexit, or if it’s more the symptom of the system on which it’s founded – and which applies to the whole of the West, where there are similar problems. The absurd idea of growth leads to permanent crises. Cheers!
SW: Rochdale doesn’t have a great reputation, anyway – weren’t you worried about your prose seeming judgemental?
Rochdale is everywhere in the West, in America, it concerns all of us…
SB: The people of Rochdale, Salford, in the falling estates on the edge of London or Leeds have only very rarely chosen to live in an area without much infrastructure and absent of future prospects. Some of them have been moved from their previous places of residence because social housing was sold off on the private market. They didn’t choose not to go into a skilled job or to continue with their education, or to attend worse schools – since Margit Thatcher [sic.] they’ve been disposed of in areas, displaced, or forgotten there. And that made me very angry, and it’s happened everywhere in capitalist societies. People have become, whatever, financial products generate a bigger surplus value than work.
Anyway, to cut a long answer short: No. Rochdale is everywhere in the West, in America, it concerns all of us who aren’t on the Forbes Richest List. Because these binned beings, the forgotten youth – that’s us.
SW: There’s no shortage of sensitive topics in GRIME (child prostitution, say, among many others). Is there any no-go for you, a last taboo?
SB: No. In art, everything goes – if you know what you are deploying and why. If you’re going to describe child prostitution – which exists – then you should do so without censoring yourself. But perhaps more brutal than a literary reference to brutality is the simple fact that at the time I was writing, more than five million children lived in absolute poverty in the UK, thousands are homeless…If you’re going to describe sexism, then it is stupid to correctly gender the literal speech of a sexist. Apropos adapting language, though: making an effort to further develop your own language is not something I perceive as censorship or as a prescription. I’m invested in not being old fashioned.
SW: You say that you constantly utter the word “fuck” when in conversation, but in GRIME you’ve also written the expletive quite a lot (the book’s title in German is GRM Brainfuck, after all). Swear words don’t seem to restrict your vocabulary, though. The opposite, in fact: they’re a source of word play. Why is swearing so important to you, so creative for you?
SB: The original title in German is GRM Brainfuck, which is a combination of, well, GRIME and Brainfuck – the latter being in my case a programming language that became famous for driving programmers crazy. I’ve no idea whether swear words have some inherently potent, creative power – they’re just often direct, honest. And actually people have this desire to really swear at each other without pausing for breath. When speaking English – and I don’t speak English with much elegance, I have to say – well, I use “fuck” extremely often, because I lack more elegant words. Those Oxford-esque ones elude me.
SW: But cursing is pretty visceral – swear words are bodily, often sexual. So they’re well-suited to your style and your chosen themes, aren’t they?
In my work language is always subordinate to the topic, and to the rhythm. For me, words are all the same, words are words, I don’t conceive of an idiom as vulgar or not – it is: language.
SB: That’s an interesting question, I’ve never asked myself that. In my work language is always subordinate to the topic, and to the rhythm. For me, words are all the same, words are words, I don’t conceive of an idiom as vulgar or not – it is: language. The only things that I really try to avoid are hackneyed turns of phrase, tired images painted with well-worn words, ugly metaphors, too many adjectives, oh and a language that – watch out, vulgarity alert! – I’d call writerly wanking. Arousing oneself over wonderfully constructed sentences, citating the great thinkers (and that never means quoting women), and being inclined to bore readers. Often I find Hip Hop texts to be classes above literature – they’re more artistic, truer, more rousing.
SW: Talking of music, how did you first get into grime?
SB:While I was doing research for the book in England and was mainly meeting a large part of the forgotten population there – people who are now in the third generation of being unemployed in their families, who are not needed by the system, and who are living in cities in decline, in estates falling down – I came into contact with grime for the first time. Almost all the youth listened to it there, and its stars are role models for many.
I love rap, and so I began to go down into a grime rabbit hole. While writing the book I listened to grime non-stop, to be in sync with the music’s rhythm. It was clear to me that if there was going to be a book and if I was going to do a tour, then I’d do it together with musicians from England. And it worked. Now I’ll digress a bit, but the day in which Chas Apetti recorded the trailer for my book in Birmingham, and when the young TRodz performed the title song and the two founders of the Ruff Sqwad Arts Foundation (RSAF) – grime legends Prince Owusu-Agyekum (aka Rapid) and Ebenezer Ayerh (aka Slix) – were there too… that was one of the best days I’ve had in years.
SW:So grime music shaped both the content as well as the form of your novel?
SB: Yes, mainly the rhythm influenced the book, as well as the strong political stance of grime music.
SW:After reading GRIME we probably shouldn’t dare to hope – to believe that life can get better in the near future. Or can we? Towards the end of your book there’s the line, not without irony: “That’s something agreeable about the human brain. It lets its owner maintain hope to the end, won’t accept when a situation is certifiably fucked.”
SB: Well, hope is in any case a lousy concept. But this much is certain: people, myself included, are always too simple-minded for making long-term prognoses; things mostly turn out differently than our limited understanding can imagine. — Hey, in America there is now an armed robot policeman already. — Aside from all that, in part two of the book series – RCE #RemoteCodeExecution – you can read how to fend off this system. A book for a good mood. A manual. And if that doesn’t help at all, let’s hope that humanity simply does what it always does: adapts itself to the biggest amount of crap and – moves on.
SW: You originally wrote about Britain in German, and now the book is appearing in English – but above all, in the USA. Were there conversations about which variety of English GRIME should be translated into? Did you want the language to still feel somehow foreign to readers, or more familiar?
When choosing the translator Tim Mohr, his strong affinity with music was important to me, as well as the modernity of his thinking.
SB: When choosing the translator Tim Mohr, his strong affinity with music was important to me, as well as the modernity of his thinking. Had I chosen a British translator, my book would have become some sort of plan view, a drawing seen from above with the roof removed – because I’m an East German, with Russian-Romanian roots and not a Brit, as much as I so wanted to teach myself to speak with a Cockney accent. What’s more, the book’s theme is universal, it can play out anywhere in the West, though then the music would have become Hip Hop and during the long research trips I wouldn’t have eaten as well as I did in England. But it would scarcely have become a different book.
SW: GRIME is the first of your novels to be published in English translation. What are your hopes for its reception?
SB: A scandal in The Sun: this communist person abolishes the monarchy and laughs about football. After that, millions, and after that – see the start of our conversation: private yet, Guernsey. To be made a dame. To be loved by all. And, by appearing with Dame Edna (who will live in Notting Hill) and Eddy Lizzard [sic.], to be able to finally speak English without saying “fuck” all the time.
© Sibylle Berg
Sibylle Berg is a Swiss-German author and playwright, and one of the most celebrated contemporary writers in the German-speaking world. Born in Weimar, Germany, Berg has written over 25 plays, 15 novels, and numerous anthologies and radio plays. Her work has been translated into 34 languages. Berg considers herself part of the Straight Edge movement and identifies as non-binary. Her novel, GRM, won the Swiss Book Prize. In 2020, she received Switzerland’s highest literary award, the Grand Prix Literature, for her work. She lives in Zurich. Find out more about Sibylle Berg here.
We are more similar than we think. China- There was a fine talk with theater professionals on the occasion of the premiere of "And now the world" in Beijing directed by Siån Chen.
"And now the world" is a winning project of our "Folding the Axis" open call in 2021.
The Sound and Fury Play Reading Festival is initiated by a group of emerging independent playwrights in China who commit themselves to new writing, celebrating diversity and freedom of expression in writing and In 2022, the Sound and Fury Play Reading Festival will present four iconic Swiss plays. These four works, by some of Switzerland's most active and renowned contemporary playwrights, deal with a wide range of contemporary issues such as philosophical reflections on life and death, female utopias, aging and fertility. Through the presentation of these four plays, it is hoped that they will provide audiences and theater creators with some new insights into what theater is meant to be about at the present time.
From 12 to 14 August 2022, four productions of this year's festival will be presented in the Live Gallery at 02 Art Museum in Beijing.
The world of the past is fading away, what voice will you make in the face of the new world?
The daunting news that global unemployment might reach 200 million people by the end of next year may be the last thing on anyone’s mind as they explore Frieze London. But one of the most recognized writers of the German-speaking world, Sibylle Berg, has put the problem center-stage.
The Frieze Project (2016) is an experimental play premiering at Frieze London as part of the fair’s Projects series. The punchy, 20-minute production speculates about what will happen to all the unemployed and unwanted refugees after a fourth industrial revolution. In Berg’s first collaboration with Cologne-based artist Claus Richter—who is best known for his playful sculptures and installations that mimic fictional childhood settings—the duo has created a dystopian scenario in which robots run our lives.
Wonderland Avenue in the Frieze