A review of Rat King Landlord, the new novel by activist and satirist Murdoch Stephens, by Josie Adams, who lives with a rat.
This is the first book I have finished in four years. The last book I read was Sisterhood of Dune, because I am no longer capable of entering new literary universes and would rather read legacy fan fiction of 1960s worm-gods than empathise with a new human character.
Thankfully, Murdoch Stephens’ Rat King Landlord is not a new universe to me. I, too, have a rat in my house, and I, too, have developed a relationship with it. My rat does not speak, like the novel’s landlord, Mr Rat, does; but it understands me. Stephens’ rat inherits a flat, and landlords over it through a property rights revolution and a rat cull. His unnamed narrator is the disgusted tenant.
My rat lives in the ceiling, and sometimes the walls. At first I thought it was a mutant ceiling man, deformed by generations of sunlight deficiency and incest, because it sounded big and like it was moving furniture around. I spent long lockdown nights roaming the halls on tiptoe with a baseball bat, waiting for the ceiling man to descend and use the toaster.
When I heard it in the walls, scrabbling up to the roof, I realised it was a rat. Fear is relative. A large mast season rat is nothing compared to a roof goblin. The rat doesn’t scare me, or at least, it doesn’t revolt me like the rat in the book revolts its nameless narrator.
I heard it fall one day. A small bounce and two loud thunks, like it had bounced off a ceiling beam and onto the ground. I stood on my bed and tapped lightly on the roof, and asked if it was OK. We’ve had a rapport ever since. I tell it to shut up, and it goes to the neighbour’s house for a few hours.
I say “it” because I don’t know the rat’s gender, and haven’t seen a rat speak or text so don’t believe it has the personhood for “they”. I realise this is problematic and possibly something I need to work on. In any case, the novel’s landlord is a rat, a person, and a “he”.
In Rat King Landlord, rathood is as significant as gender and class, at least to Mr Rat, and to certain members of society. When the rat’s gender is questioned, the property manager is outraged: “This is 2020 and you’ve got to get with the times,” he says. “You just need to be a touch more respectful.”
Stephens’ Wellington is pretty much the same as ours: it’s in the middle of a housing crisis, compounded by abominable property managers. This is a book about how property begets violence, and violence begets targets: classes, genders, and species.
The novel is separated into three sections, each based around a night of anti-landlording action, and each marking a growth of both violence and Mr Rat’s personhood. The titular rat, not yet a landlord, steals a phone early on. “There was a sharp white light from the shed,” says our narrator. “Plugged into the socket was the landlord’s phone. Tapping away at the screen was the rat. He met my eyes and I met his.”
They’ve met before, but this is the moment lines are drawn in the novel. Our narrator recognises Mr Rat’s “dominating” desires, and days later tenants around Wellington smash glass bottles to protest dominating property managers. Mr Rat is a harbinger of revolution, an icon and also a literal pest.
When Mr Rat first speaks it’s from his blinged-out shed, rasping “you’ve brought them to me?”. He has a small fridge for fizzy drinks, holographic postcards, and glitter sellotape decking out the room. “It looked like something between a mental asylum and a cruise ship discotheque,” writes Stephens. Only five pages later the flat Mr Rat landlords over has black and yellow paint daubed on its door to mark its status: rented, and rat-infested.
Making “landlord” a verb instead of a noun is written as a bit, an American Psycho-esque excavation of meme-creation. The book is written from a first-person perspective, and like Bret Easton Ellis before him Stephens has done a masterful job of making our narrator aggressively boring despite holding exciting revolutionary views. He’s pure brocialist.
“Landlords I can understand, bastards that they are. Bricks and mortar seem a safe investment. But people who manage houses professionally without owning them? How could I feel anything but disdain for professional enforcers of our new feudal class? Nah, bro, back into the sea with them,” says our narrator.
Rat King Landlord is dotted with pseudo-Marxist jargon, and lengthy inner ramblings about classism. Its characters talk the talk but really just want to live somewhere and get paid; they just want that Norman Kirk shit.
Like our narrator, I wanted to be a communist but couldn’t keep up with the readings. Rat King Landlord is written for us, the undergraduate renter. The conditions and possibilities of full land ownership reform are only one rat sentience away.
In one of my old flats there was a mouse. There were no other mice. I think this mouse ate them. It spent most of its time under the fridge, until it was too fat, at which point it moved into the lounge. It would watch TV with us. We would try to ignore the mouse, which was the size of two normal mice, as it came out of its gargantuan wall hole to watch Narcos. It would saunter across the floor like Pablo Escobar entering the Colombian parliament, confident we were too cowardly to stop it hauling its bulbous mass up onto the couch.
It was right.