Monday, March 30, 2009

Suttree by Cormac McCarthy


Cornelius “Buddy” Suttree, college educated and seemingly living a comfortable life, with a wife and new child, removes himself from this sedate sensibility and retreats to the margins of society, living the life of a river rat in McAnally Flats, a desperately poor area of Knoxville, Tennessee. He is a seeker after something, although it is not entirely clear, to him or to us, what that might be – the meaning of life, perhaps or, more darkly, an accommodation with death. For it is death that courses through this novel as relentlessly as the Tennessee river which provides its geographical focus. The one is a symbol of the other and indeed, such is the strength of the sense of place in this novel (the river is ‘heavy, with a wrinkled face’), one almost questions at times which is the signifier and which the signified.

Suttree is an anarchist. He rejects responsibility, abjures authority, refuses to be bound by convention. His life is littered by drunken brawls and morning-after amnesia and the detritus of desperation. His friends are the bums and deadbeats and criminals of Knoxville. His one mature sexual relationship is with a prostitute, with whose earnings he buys a flash motor car. In one respect he leads a broken, day-to-day existence of no ambition and no progress, fishing for the prehistoric catfish that are the only things to survive in the polluted river, drinking, fighting, acting as confidante to the fatalistic, unnamed ragpicker, or as reluctant friend to the Indian, Michael, or even more reluctant father-figure to the comically criminal Harrogate.

But while it is possible to characterise Suttree as simply a loser or a deadbeat, that would offer only a superficial analysis, and a more complex interpretation is required. He may be failing, but he is not – quite – a failed man. There is innate goodness in him and his nonconformism is the product of ambivalence, not badness. Suttree is a significant progression from McCarthy’s three previous southern novels in that the central character has not significantly transgressed against civil law. In The Orchard Keeper, for example, there is murder and the making and running of illegal moonshine; in Child of God, Lester Ballard is a murdering necrophiliac; the problems of Rinthy and Culla Holme in Outer Dark date from the birth of their incestuous offspring. But while Suttree’s abandonment of his wife and child might be reprehensible it is not criminal, and it is significant that his imprisonment at the start of the novel is occasioned not by any illegal activity but simply because he happened to be drunk in the wrong place at the wrong time. Suttree rebels against his society, but other than drunken violence, he does not transgress against its laws. Rather, it is the metaphysical questions of life and death, and the role of God therein, that occupy Suttree. Thus, while in the earlier novels the focus was on the City of Man, in Suttree it is on the City of God.

Suttree is a deep character, and he is beset by a far deeper emotional, perhaps spiritual crisis than he would wish his fast-living companions to understand. His ruinous existence on the river barge is punctuated throughout the novel by attempts to escape. First, he leaves for the funeral of his son but is driven away by his family, and although the reason for Suttree’s initial flight from them is never explained, their subsequent anger towards him is palpable. Second, a quasi-mystical journey into the Smokies ends – perhaps in a deliberate subversion of the American myth of the nobleness of wild nature – in starved defeat. Third, his attempt to earn a living with the mussel-dredger Reese and his family ends in tragedy. Then, in a typhoid induced fever, he is transported to the very edge of consciousness, to that place where life and death converge and existence itself is compromised, but after a number of days of hallucinations he is drawn back, perhaps unwillingly, to reality and makes his recovery. Only at the end of the novel, when Suttree obtains a lift out of town without even hitching for it, is there any prospect of genuine escape. The last words of the novel are ‘Fly them.’ And Suttree flees. But from whom? Or what?

Again, one can approach this on either a superficial or a complex level. Initially, Suttree is fleeing convention, normality. In a crucial letter early in the novel, his father tells him:

If it is life that you feel you are missing I can tell you where to find it. In the law courts, in business, in government. There is nothing occurring in the streets. Nothing but a dumbshow composed of the helpless and the impotent.

The anomaly here is that, unlike the rest of the inhabitants of McAnally Flats (and, indeed the characters of McCarthy’s three preceding southern novels) Suttree need not live in the ‘dumbshow’. He is articulate and educated but he has shunned an easy existence and has accepted, instead, a casual life of stunted ambition. Rather than impotence he has chosen indolence. This is suggestive of an existential tension in him, an unwillingness to fight against the inevitability of those vested interests of court and business and government. It is as though Suttree has resigned himself to not living a real life. Thus, his attempted divorce from the City of Man is reinforced.

This is not to say, however, that he has resigned himself to death. And that is where we approach the second, deeper interpretation of Suttree’s character. For Suttree is not an existentialist. Though he clearly accepts the absurdity of existence and, at times, goes so far as to wish for death, he is nonetheless driven by a spiritual hunger that grows throughout the novel.

Much of his torment comes from a need to reconcile life and death, man and God, and the past, present and future. This tension is revealed early with the introduction of Suttree’s stillborn brother. The contrast between them – the living and the dead – is revealed in a passage which takes us directly into the consciousness of Suttree himself, when he says: ‘He is in the limbo of the Christian righteous, I in a terrestrial hell.’ This is suggestive of a spiritual quest, of a search for meaning in this corporeal life, and until Suttree can reconcile his existence in this ‘terrestrial hell’, his brother – his double, his other self – cannot escape from the limbo of nothingness. The one is inextricably linked to the other. Throughout the novel, Suttree seeks to establish whether such nothingness is something to aspire to or to fear, and it is something he feels he must confront alone. In another scene which takes us directly into Suttree’s consciousness, he reflects at the graveside of his son:

How surely are the dead beyond death. Death is what the living carry with them. A state of dread, like some uncanny foretaste of a bitter memory. But the dead do not remember and nothingness is not a curse. Far from it.

Again, this is not to suppose that Suttree seeks the nothingness of death. In a powerful scene with the ragpicker, he tells him: ‘No one wants to die.’ The ragpicker disagrees. ‘Here’s one that’s sick of livin,’ he replies. What happens when you die, Suttree asks him. ‘Dont nothin happen. You’re dead.’ They then begin a discussion on God, and on how God may be called to account. ‘What would you say to him?’ Suttree asks. ‘And what do you think he’ll say?’ Once more, the ragpicker demonstrates a certainty that Suttree cannot – yet – attain:

The ragpicker spat and wiped his mouth. I dont believe he can answer it, he said. I dont believe there is a answer.

The ragpicker is thus – like the stillborn brother – another, deeper and more troubled representation of the state of Suttree’s consciousness. He it is who ‘always figured they was a God’, continuing laconically that he ‘just never did like him.’ It is this ambivalence that is at the root of the novel, and this hopelessness that Suttree is struggling to overcome. Later, when Suttree tries to be positive, telling him, ‘We’re all right,’ the ragpicker replies, ‘We’re all fucked.’

In time, Suttree comes close to agreeing with him. In his first descent into delirium, up in the mountains, he wonders: ‘Could a whole man not author his own death with a thought? Shut down the ventricle like the closing of an eye?’ Later, following his break-up with Joyce he reaches his nadir:

For there were days this man so wanted for some end to things that he’d have taken up his membership among the dead; all souls that ever were, eyes bound with night.

Suttree experiences the loneliness of a man disconnected. Throughout the novel we are presented with his doubles – the stillborn brother, the ragpicker, the comic Harrogate, depicting naivety and greed, the goat-man who presciently identifies Suttree’s loneliness, the Indian with whom Suttree, despite himself, longs to make friends. Each forces Suttree, in some way, to confront his reality and the reality of existence, the loneliness of it. Perhaps the key passage in the novel occurs on Suttree’s river barge, where he engages in a dialogue with his shadow – another double – on death and dying:

Tilting back in his chair he framed questions for the quaking ovoid of lamplight on the ceiling to pose to him:
Supposing there be any soul to listen and you died tonight?
They’d listen to my death.
No final word?
Last words are only words.
You can tell me, paradigm of your own sinister genesis construed by a flame in a glass bell.
I’d say I was not unhappy.
You have nothing.
It may be the last shall be first.
Do you believe that?
No.
What do you believe?
I believe that the last and the first suffer equally. Pari passu.
Equally?
It is not alone in the dark of death that all souls are one soul.
Of what would you repent?
Nothing.
Nothing?
One thing. I spoke with bitterness about my life and I said that I would take my own part against the slander of oblivion and against the monstrous facelessness of it and that I would stand a stone in the very void where all would read my name. Of that vanity I recant all.

Longley suggests this ‘may be the definitive statement of the Existential consciousness.’ I would suggest it is quite the opposite. It is the definitive statement of the power of God and the meaninglessness of man. The reference to vanity clearly echoes Ecclesiastes, in particular a quote which could stand as an explication of McCarthy’s entire oeuvre:

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.

Throughout McCarthy’s writing there are constant and consistent references to men and animals as being equal before God. To suggest otherwise, the Bible tells us, is vanity. In McCarthy it leads to hubris. In Suttree, we are drawn to an understanding that all are one in God. ‘It is not alone in the dark of death that all souls are one soul,’ Suttree decides. Canfield identifies this a ‘sort of Zen moment’, in which:

he is "one Suttree" because he surrenders to the mystery of the One and the Many. In recanting the Romantic myth of the alienated self, Suttree can now howl like the lone wolf precisely because he is not alone.

And, in this way, Suttree finds oneness in the end, and this is the key. He is reconciled with his God, at one with him. Throughout the novel he has either sought the companionship of others (such as the Indian, Michael) or felt the presence of others. In his sojourn in the mountains, for example, despite being quite alone, ‘He had begun to become accompanied.’ At the graveside of his son, again alone, ‘Someone touched his shoulder. When he looked up there was no one there.’ But finally, Suttree comes to understand that there is no other, nor any need for another, only oneness with God. At the start of his typhoid delirium he raves, ‘ Who is this otherbody? I am no otherbody.’ By the time he recovers, he declares, ‘I know all souls are one and all souls lonely.’

In this depiction of a man reconciled, finally, with God, many critics see redemption. John Rothfork goes as far as to call Suttree a ‘barefoot Jesus... who drinks with the poor, the sick, and the outcast, and who sweats blood in some Knoxville Gethsemane.’ Canfield suggests that it is through his acts of compassion in the novel that Suttree gains redemption, as indicated by the offering of water – the stuff of life – by the little boy at the end of the novel. Perhaps so, but here we seem to be in that twisted territory inhabited by the likes of Flannery O’Connor in which redemption is approached only through the greatest of suffering. One of the principal acts of compassion shown by Suttree is his refusal to continue his affair with the child-woman, Wanda. Longley indicates that this is because to do otherwise would inevitably result in: ‘Pregnancy, a shotgun marriage, more children and no way to provide for them.’ And yet it is this act of common-sense, or compassion, that results in the death of Wanda: had she spent the night with Suttree she would not have been beneath the cliff when it slipped and flattened her. Christian redemption, then, is a dangerous beast. It is predicated on the notion of a qualified free-will, over which God retains the ultimate sanction and the expression of which is inescapably compromised by the nature of mankind itself. In Outer Dark and, more especially, Child of God, McCarthy went out of his way to refute the Rousseauian concept of the noble savage. In Suttree, his target is the so-called ‘civilized man’ who, Rousseau believed, was so removed from reality that he depended on the opinions of others to establish his own identity. Suttree subverts that by removing himself from civilized men, and in so doing he attains an identity, a self. That in itself would be a noble attainment but, this being McCarthy, that attainment is necessarily constrained by the vision of this ever-present, brooding deity. It is clearly facile to blame the land slip which kills Wanda on God, and yet, it seems, whatever Suttree seeks to do – find happiness in the City of Man or redemption in the City of God – he is doomed to failure. Like all McCarthy’s characters, he is in constant flight from a fate from which there seems no escape.

And so we come back to the initial question. Flight from what? Canfield, suggesting an autobiographical slant to the novel, posits that, for Suttree, it is an escape from ‘the deadliness of the doomed East... like McCarthy himself, who abandoned Knoxville for El Paso around the time of the publication of Suttree.’ If that is the case, and it is not unfeasible, then this forces us to reassess the ending of the novel, which is generally regarded as upbeat, even hopeful. Suttree returns to his river barge after his near-fatal battle with Typhoid Fever and finds a decaying body in his bed. Thus, it is suggested, he has eluded Death. ‘Old Suttree aint dead,’ a character avers, and indeed he isn’t. He heads towards the freeway and, without even having to hitch a ride, someone stops and he is offered a free lift towards enlightenment, the real life, away from the doomed East of Lester Ballard and Rinthy and Culla Holme. It is certainly possible to interpret the ending that way and, indeed, the novel does give the impression of ending on a more uplifting note than McCarthy’s previous novels, but his meaning is, as ever, elliptical. We have the curious challenge at the end, ‘Fly them.’

We now know, having read the rest of McCarthy’s oeuvre, that the journey westward does not bring the redemption or happiness or even the reconciliation with the self that McCarthy and his characters seek. The first foray westwards ends in the slaughterhouse of Blood Meridian. John Grady Cole’s search for a good life becomes a Mobius-like circulation between Texas and Mexico, the present and the past, the corrupted and the corruptible. Billy Parham finds tragedy. So does John Grady. In The Road, amid the ruins of humanity, the father and son return eastwards in defeat. At best, then, Suttree’s flight will see him remain in the City of Man, surrounded by its ‘apocalyptic waste’. At worst, one must ask whether there is to be any escape at all? Has he, in fact, eluded Death, or is Death awaiting him in the car that gives the impression of offering him transport to the opportunity of new life? There may, indeed, be redemption for Suttree, but McCarthy’s characters are never permitted the luxury of peace. Or even life. Free-will, remember, only stretches so far: God reserves the final word.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Moby Dick

Well, it's taken me some considerable time, but I've finally finished Moby Dick. Remarkable. I understand it wasn't greatly received on its publication and I can see why: in some ways it must be considered a complete mess, and the sheer experimentalism (is that a word?) and inventiveness of it must have been perplexing. The style shifts and changes throughout, as does its focus. Initally, it seems to be the (astoundingly homoerotic) story of Ishmael and Queequeg, but they fall out of the story almost completely (itself an interesting stylistic point, given that Ishmael is the narrator...)

As the story progresses, and especially as we approach the moment of destiny with the whale, the style becomes astonishing. At times it doesn't read as a novel at all, but rather a stage play, with stage directions and long soliloquys. Melville dispenses with narrative and description almost entirely, and the result is an intense focus on Ahab and his quest. It is powerful stuff.

It would never get published today, of course. That's quite a sobering thought, isn't it?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Matters of life and death

American fiction... does not stem only, as Hemingway claimed, from a book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry finn but also from another, it may be argued with equal pertinence, by Dostoyevsky called Notes from Underground.
Ihab Hassan. Radical innocence: studies in the contemporary American novel


I am not a fan of Notes from Underground but I can certainly see Hassan's point. He suggests that, even although it was published in 1864, it could be considered a modernist text. Certainly, in the narrator's anger and self-loathing it pre-figures existentialism, or at least that caricatured perception of existentialism which obtains more readily to nihilism, but which is peddled by a certain type of individual as the root of modern society's malaise. It is this reason that I dislike Notes from Underground so much: it is an intensely socio-political book, didactic and two dimensional. It is straw man building par excellence. Without it, there could be no Flannery O'Connor, because she surely learned her entire technique from Dostoevsky's creation of the wretched Underground Man.

Hassan continues:

That Dostoyevsky's "insect" [ie the Underground Man] can establish his identity only by forcing himself to collide ignominiously with an arrogant officer who does not even recognize his existence is of no importance. The important thing is that it is he who forces the recognition. This is freedom.

Hassan then turns to Conrad, and in particular Kurtz from Heart of Darkness. This is significant, as it points to where the failure of Dostoevsky lies. In the Underground Man, Dostoevsky paints a picture of nihilistic despair in which 'freedom' can only be expressed through self-destructive narcissism. It is the natural product of solipsism. This is the kind of man created by those who believe free will is only a qualified possession, and that there are always greater forces at play. Conrad, however, does not wade in the shallows of metaphysics; appropriately, for a seaman, he takes us directly into the face of the storm and forces us to confront what Hassan describes as the 'unintelligent brutality of existence'. In this, Kurtz could be said to share some of the characteristics of the Underground Man, but the difference between them is one of action, of choice. Free will. Humanness. It is this which is denied by writers like Dostoevsky or Melville. This, what almost amounts to a denial of humanness, is what marks out anti-rationalist writers. What they do is hark back to Ecclesiastes:

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.

This is a characteristic of Cormac McCarthy which I noted in my discussion on All The Pretty Horses. And it informs the writing of Flannery O'Connor. It is the root of Dostoevsky's contempt for his Underground Man. But what they all misunderstand is that looking into a mirror is not only an act of vanity. How may we ever understand ourselves if we do not examine ourselves? The answer, often, is unpalatable, as Kurtz will attest, but to ask the question at all is preferable to waiting for the answer to be delivered from on high. It is a matter of truth.

So, yes, Notes from Underground could be argued as being a modernist text, but is doesn't so much seek truth as anticipate death. And thus it is the modernism of Eliot and not of Joyce, rooted in the maker, not the made. For my part, I would rather have a meaningless life than a meaningful death.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Small world


A few weeks ago I mentioned going to Tate Modern in London and coming across a painting I'd never seen there before which I thought was stunning. It was by Meredith Frampton, entitled Portrait of a Young Woman. I was captivated by the expression of this woman, at once haughty and knowing. She was, I suggested, someone who ought to have a story written about her.

I haven't written the story yet - too much reading, not enough writing, that's been the pattern this year so far - but yesterday we went into Hull, just down the road from here, for the day. There, in the Ferens Art Gallery, I came across another painting by Frampton of this woman, called A Game of Patience. I spotted her immediately, the same suave expression. Her name, apparently, was Margaret Austin-Jones, but a quick google has unearthed nothing particularly interesting about her.

But it seems a remarkable coincidence that I should be so taken by the Tate painting of this woman, only to find that there is another one in my local art gallery.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, pp 1-151


I used to have a colleague who, once she had started a novel, had to complete it. She could not permit herself to leave it unfinished, and I would see her every lunch time, poring mournfully over some tome that she simply hated. Fortunately, I have no such compunction, which is why, later this morning, you'll find a copy of The Unconsoled in my local Oxfam.

I'm aware that this is a controversial novel and it's reviled and revered in equal measure. I'm in neither camp: it elicits no strong emotion in me either way. Rather, it commits the unforgiveable sin for an experimental novel of being boring. I simply couldn't care less what was happening to Ryder.

Those who know Ishiguro's work will know that he is extremely fond of the unreliable narrator. Things are never what they seem, and there is always an edge of uncertainty with his work. I like that. When We Were Orphans was fascinating, and the alternate world he created in Never Let Me Go did, indeed, never let me go. But here the unreliability has subsumed the whole piece. From the outset it is clear that nobody - least of all Ryder - has the faintest idea what is going on. He is in some European city - he doesn't know where - where he is the honoured guest - he doesn't know why - giving some sort of performance - he doesn't know what - in three days time. All very mysterious. And, given a scenario like that, I'd be seduced, I'd want to read more.

Ishiguro is a brilliant writer. His control of language and narrative is exceptional. Here, the twists where he slips into outrageous points of view errors are beautifully handled - one little sentence and you're taken into conversations or memories that Ryder could not possibly have any cognisance of. There is, initially, a fraught feeling about the whole piece, an air of menace and foreboding. It is all set up wonderfully.

But then it just goes on. More of the same. More of Ryder's incomprehension. It is the same conceit being repeated over and over and over again, like a child who learns his first magic trick and insists on demonstrating it to his family for the rest of the holiday. That, inevitably, has the effect of making the drama lose its edge. In the end (or, strictly speaking, the middle, since I got no further than page 151), I was reduced to shouting, 'Why don't you just ask what's happening, man?'

The Unconsoled is clearly an experimental novel but, for me, the experiment fails. Firstly, it is just too dense, with too much detail, too much narrative. By coincidence I was reading this as the news was announced of James Purdy's death. The parallels are striking: with Malcolm, Purdy also creates a dream-world where nothing is clear and where the main character inhabits a world he doesn't understand. But Purdy's narrative is crisp, clipped, precise. It says in 240-odd pages everything that Ishiguro labours over in 500 plus pages. That is important: experiment, especially where we're talking about mental disconnection, needs to be clear and steer free from clutter. There is too much narrative clutter here, and it becomes tedious.

Secondly, its register feels wrong. It is too unremittingly flat. In a shorter piece that disparity between voice and narrative might work, but not with something of this length. When Ishiguro gets it right, it works brilliantly, but here it fails because it never changes. Reading When We Were Orphans, for example, was an exhilarating experience because it starts perfectly rationally and gradually becomes weirder and weirder: it is like witnessing the mental breakdown of a novel. That makes the experiences of the main character all the more powerful. Here, it is the same thing from page one, unremitting, ultimately boring. It is a pity, because I am a great admirer of Ishiguro generally. I'd like to be charitable and say it is an interesting failure, but, really, it isn't that interesting.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Oracle Night by Paul Auster


Paul Auster says of Oracle Night that it is ‘about love and forgiveness.’ It is also about words, their power, their danger. ‘Words can kill,’ a character decides at one point. Another collects telephone directories, their millions of words remembering the living and the dead, their assemblage acting as a ‘house of memory’. Remembrance perhaps, but words can also confuse, as Auster’s tangled narrative amply demonstrates. In true Shakespearean style, there are stories within stories here, and stories within stories within stories, complete with footnotes to provide additional detail, and a dizzying array of plotlines are interwoven with consummate skill. To what end, though, it is difficult to say. Auster is a clever, clever writer, but doesn’t he know it? Why make a point when you can make a postmodern point? Why articulate a theme when you can simply be mysterious? Smoke and mirrors, trickery, self-referential fun for all the family, but in the end surface overwhelms substance.

When Auster is on form he is brilliant. The Music of Chance is a superb novel, eerie, terrifying and driven. Parts of Oracle Night are very good, and it must be said it is a rattling read – you are driven on by Auster’s tremendous narrative brio – but the whole is significantly less than the sum of its parts. It simply does not stand up to scrutiny. In particular, the characterisation is woeful, with a bunch of solipstic, self-obsessed characters who never feel remotely real and whose apparent love for one another is inexplicable, given how loathsome and unloveable they are.

And, as is probably inevitable in such a Russian doll of a novel, some of the plots become contrived beyond breaking point. In particular, the scene where the main character is taken to a strip joint and ends up having a blow-job is excruciatingly awful – badly done, completely out of character, wholly improbable, written purely to advance the plot and reading, finally, like some middle-aged wank fantasy. In one of the plot strands, the main character – a writer – writes himself into a corner in his latest work and can’t get out of it. One feels the same thing overtook Auster in the writing of this novel.

The frustration is that it feels as though there is something important here. Auster wants to talk about love and compassion, and human – as opposed to religious – redemption. He takes us to places where human life has lost its meaning – Dachau, or a sordid bedsit in the Bronx – and wonders how the past can be harnessed to improve the present. Great stuff, an analysis of the Nietzschean struggle against ressentiment and affirmation of the moment, but the power of that is dissipated by the mass of plot which is wound round and round the theme like a tourniquet.

Wouldn’t it be good if Paul Auster would just sit down and tell a story, instead of WRITING one?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Glyph by Percival Everett



In its central conceit, Glyph is essentially identical to another of Everett's novels, American Desert. In that, a man dies and comes back to life – literally so, rising from his coffin in the middle of his funeral service. In Glyph we have a ten-month-old baby prodigy who has the brain of a fully-functioning intellectual adult and an IQ of 476, reading, memorising and understanding everything that is put before him and, although he eschews speech, able to write and communicate fluently. On the face of it you might argue, then, that the two novels are not especially similar, but they are: in each, a person is violently removed from the mainstream of human experience in order to be able to observe it from the margins. It is the common stuff of satire, of course: by artificially intensifying the emotions and beliefs and taboos and mores of a society, the satirist can reveal its weaknesses and faultlines. This is what Everett does brilliantly.

And so, just as in American Desert Ted is kidnapped by religious lunatics and subsequently kidnapped again by the government, in Glyph baby Ralph is kidnapped by one crazed academic, undergoes a bungled kidnap by a second and is immediately kidnapped again by shadowy government agencies, where he is put to work as a spy. That’s not the end of it. He is rescued by a kindly guard, only to be effectively kidnapped again as the guard and his wife, desperate for a child of her own, flee to Mexico. There, he falls into the clutches of a paedophile priest, while, one by one, his previous kidnappers and his distraught mother converge on him, each determined to claim him for their own. Crazy? It certainly is, and extremely funny, too. As ever, do not expect dry social realism from Percival Everett.

It could be argued that a fault of Everett’s is his tendency to take potshots at everything, and certainly, with Glyph, the usual suspects are lined up for their Everettian kicking – racial stereotyping, the media, the church, academia, the government. These tend to appear in all of his novels, and it is only the relative degree of their suffering that changes. That does sometimes give a feeling that his writing is unfocused, and it also serves to give a sense of déjà vu at times.

But that is not to say that this is a weak book – far from it. Everett is one of the funniest writers around and here he has enormous fun. His primary target in Glyph is academia, principally at the expense of Roland Barthes – ‘I’m French, you know’, and the postmodernist, deconstructionist school of literary criticism. Barthes is portrayed as a lecherous, pretentious buffoon, and baby Ralph joyfully rips his treasured theories apart. Of his structuralist analysis of Sarrasine, S/Z (which Everett also plays with in his most famous novel, Erasure), Ralph agrees that, in theory, he could read backwards or pull text randomly from a novel and so produce fragments in the way that Barthes suggests. ‘But I do not,’ he says, ‘any more than than I might walk the middle part of my trip to the refrigerator first this time and last the next.’ Thus, Everett trashes much of the artificiality of academia. There are in-jokes by the dozen here. Many of them fly straight over my head because I am not a literature scholar but, such is the brio with which Everett writes, it scarcely matters.

However, as with all the best satire, there is a message here. Everett makes his usual comments about race and religion and the evils of secret government, but this time his real target is truth. Near the end, Ralph insists that he ‘offers no truth about the culture’, but here he is being too modest. The novel has revolved around truth, around the ways that we interrelate and how we prevaricate, how we come to judgements not based on truth but on our own prejudices and fears and self-interests. Ralph also insists frequently that, the evidence notwithstanding, he is not a genius. How could I be?, he seems to be saying, because:

What genius, I guessed then and know now, allows is the start of a new race. Genius means finding a way back to the beginning where the truths are uncorrupted and honest and maybe even pure.

And there we have it. Raph, despite his massive intellect, is still literally a babe in arms, and for all his knowingness he represents that uncorrupted honesty that we all seek. There is, beneath the satire, a tenderness in the writing of Pervical Everett that makes him a most beguiling writer. He has the wit of a satirist, but the heart of a romantic.

Friday, March 13, 2009

James Purdy, 1914-2009


James Purdy has died.

I've only recently discovered Purdy, and he was an extraordinary author. I've reviewed a couple of his books here. As he himself acknowledged, he was never going to be embraced by the mainstream because he refused to bow to convention or play the usual games. As a gay author - particularly in the 50s and 60s - he was out on a limb. But even the gay community wouldn't embrace him, because he wouldn't conform to their stereotypes either. He simply wouldn't play anyone's games and wrote on his own terms. Artistically, that is his legacy, although it means, sadly, that he is a greatly neglected author.

The Nephew is an outstanding work, not least because it deals with homosexuality in such a natural way. Even today, books about gay characters tend to be about GAY characters, and their sexuality is the most important point. In The Nephew, written in the early sixties, Purdy established a fine character who was filled with his own foibles and strengths and interests. Only late in the novel does it even emerge that he was homosexual, and the revelation does not in any way alter the narrative, or our perceptions of him. That is fine writing, and it is greatly to our discredit that, nearly fifty years later, writers - either gay or not - are still failing to follow his naturalistic lead.

He was a fine author, and one who followed his own artistic line. It should have made him better known. As is the way of things, now that he's dead, perhaps it may.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Death-longing eyes

Death seems the only desirable sequel for a career like this; but Death
is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried; it is but the first salutation to the possibilities of the immense Remote, the Wild, the Watery, the Unshored; therefore, to the death-longing eyes of such men, who still have left in them some interior compunctions against suicide, does the all-contributed and all-receptive ocean alluringly spread forth his whole plain of unimaginable, taking terrors, and wonderful, new-life adventures; and from the hearts of infinite Pacifics, the thousand mermaids sing to them--"Come hither, broken-hearted; here is another life without the guilt of intermediate death; here are wonders supernatural, without dying for them. Come hither! bury thyself in a life which, to your now equally abhorred and abhorring, landed world, is more oblivious than death. Come hither! put up THY gravestone, too, within the churchyard, and come hither, till we marry thee!"

Herman Melville, Moby Dick, chapter 121

A fascinating quote, that. Never mind that the cause of it was a man driven to destitution by drink - from such prosaic beginnings it opens up a strange metaphysical universe. I've just been replying to a comment on a previous post, about Cormac McCarthy's Outer Dark, and the above passage, which I read this morning, came back to me. Melville's influence on McCarthy is well-known, of course, and McCarthy would certainly recognise the 'region of the strange Untried'. I think it is from (or to) just that strange region that the three strangers in Outer Dark are journeying.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Zadie Smith's two paths for the novel

Zadie Smith has written a fascinating article in the New York Review of Books, which I’ve just come across. In it, she states that, in literary terms, these are ‘not particularly healthy times.’ There is, she says, a ‘breed of lyrical realism’ which she considers now to be unproductive and which has held sway for too long. In developing her argument she cites two novels, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, which I have reviewed here and here, and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which is new to me.

Lyrical realism, she argues has remained the dominant force in literature, and modern writing still bears the traces of Balzac and Flaubert. It’s hard to disagree and I’ve bemoaned the fact on here before. She goes on: despite the modernist surge, as exemplified by, say, Finnegans Wake, realism has remained dominant, and O’Neill’s Netherland is a fine example of it. Quoting a passage of description from the novel, she suggests that if it were inserted in a nineteenth-century novel ‘you wouldn’t see the joins.’ Similarly, I would argue, my own bete noire, Coetzee.

Nonetheless, Smith argues, ‘if literary Realism survived the assault of Joyce, it retained the wound.’ Netherland, with its ‘narrative nostalgia,’ its use of ‘voracious image’ and its ‘adjectival mania,’ ‘bears this anxiety trace.’ Indeed, anxious is a word she repeatedly uses to describe the novel. But, in the end, despite this anxiety it falls short of really examining the unknowable, of understanding the brute realities of life. This is, she seems to be suggesting, a failure of nerve: the novel ‘doesn’t really want to know about misapprehension.’ Thus, whenever it tries to probe into the darkness, the impact is dissipated by the literariness, even the prettiness of its language. O’Neill, she says, ‘knows the fears and weaknesses of [his] readers’ but rather than confronting them, he ‘indulges’ them.

She contrasts O’Neill’s anxious literary realism with the approach in Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, in which an unnamed main character has suffered mental trauma from a blow to the head which means he has no memory of the events he is describing. What ensues is, Smith says, a ‘kind of anti-literature hoax’. In Smith’s opinion it is ‘one of the great English novels of the past ten years and offers a glimpse of what is possible if, instead of marching down the adjective-lined avenue towards the middle-brow inheritors of the mantle of realism, we travel, instead, towards ‘constructive deconstruction,’ towards a less complacent territory where the novel might develop in extraordinary ways.

I do agree about the sway of the realist tradition, with its use of symbolism and a kind of romanticised authenticity. However, although I am a great admirer of Barth and Barthelme and Gaddis and DeLillo and the other 1960s metafictionists who, as Smith notes, have been ‘relegated to a safe corner of literary history,’ I wouldn’t necessarily argue that their relegation is a bad thing. Those writers pursued a vision of literature that was fascinating but, ultimately, flawed. It led nowhere. That is not to say they are of no worth and it is absolutely not to say that new writers shouldn’t be pursuing their own madcap, unstructured, unorthodox visions. Quite the contrary.

It’s probably just my individualist nature but I get suspicious of movements, or styles, or manifestos. It’s all just words. I guess my view is – and it’s an entirely unliterary view – that the point of writing is to be read. As SR Ranganathan said, in a different context, To every book its reader, to every reader his book.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver


Prodigal Summer is set in southern Appalachia and, in fine southern tradition, the setting is highly significant. One character even describes it as ‘another man in her life’. Thus, it is beautifully and faithfully recreated. The action takes place over a single summer, following the travails of a group of people who are interconnected in ways that are gradually revealed as the novel progresses. There is Deanna, a fiercely independent woman in her forties who lives alone in the mountains and works as a mountain ranger, and whose mission, in particular is to preserve the coyotes who have made their home there. Her solitary existence is shattered by the arrival of Eddie Bondo, a hunter who, it transpires, is seeking to kill the very coyotes she aims to protect. Then there is Lusa, a city-girl who marries into a country family, only for her husband to be killed, leaving her to cope with a sprawling farm and hostile in-laws. Finally, there are Nannie Rawley and Garnett, aged neighbours whose constant feuding derives from love and hate in equal measure. Each of the three stories is told in its own thread, and as the summer unfolds so do matters of love and life and death and heredity and, most of all, of belonging.

Although this is a fine novel, I have two particular issues with it. Firstly, it is all, in the end, just a bit too cozy, too comfortable. It becomes, like the work of a beginner writer who shies away from the genuinely dramatic scene because it is too difficult to write, an exercise in taking the easy options. Everything is resolved nicely. Bad Eddie Bondo finally agrees with Deanna and leaves the coyotes alone. The family come round to accepting Lusa as a wonderful, fragrant, delicious human being; Little Rickie takes his sexual rebuff with an equanimity unknown in any seventeen-year-old of my acquaintance; Nannie and Garnett end up in the embrace we always knew they would. Basically, it is safe, bloodless.

Barbara Kingsolver is sometimes written about as coming from the southern tradition, but Flannery O’Connor would have probably hated this novel. She would have seen it as sentimental and excessively tender, well-meaning but shallow. Her view of life was harsh in the extreme. She once wrote: ‘To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.’ She amplified this on another occasion, stating:

When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness [ie faith], its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and the fumes of the gas chamber.

While not necessarily accepting her view on the source of tenderness (or love, or human devotion), one has to acknowledge that O’Connor was an astute observer of human nature, and she knew enough to realise that the pastoral view of existence is spurious because we are not, and never have been, nor ever will be, noble savages. Thus, having had the presumption to ascribe to O’Connor, forty-six years dead, an opinion on this novel from 2000, I will now compound that by saying, on this occasion, I agree with her invented opinion entirely. I dislike O’Connor’s world and the two-dimensional characters she invents in order to convey her message, but those of Barbara Kingsolver are, in the end, equally cartoonish. The author is trying to say important things about the nature of being, what it is to love and to belong, and to exist in a world divided into predators and prey. That is to say, then, it is an analysis of what it is to be human in a Darwinian world. Yet the world she creates here is not Darwinian; it is sanitised, nature bearing a velvet glove rather than red in tooth and claw. I’m not calling for characters to blind themselves like O’Connor’s Hazel Motes or undergo anal rape in the name of Jesus like her Tarwater, but nonetheless I would find Kingsolver’s a more credible universe if at least somebody suffered. Even Jewel, the sister who has terminal cancer, has the good grace not to die on the page.

And my second complaint it that it is badly infested by what might be described as Coetzee-how-clever-I-am-itis, that Tourette’s-like urge to invest some wider symbolism in a novel by constant repetitions of the same basic themes. In this novel, these elaborations follow the narrative threads for the three main character lines, helpfully pointed up as Moth Love, Predators and Old Chestnuts. We are forever drawn out of the narrative for lessons in biology and in the flora and fauna of the Appalachians, for musings on the balance between predator and prey and the Darwinian progress of life on Earth. Characters give lectures and things happen to them which are immediately understandable on both a literal and symbolic level. This is all done in that arch way of modern literature where little episodes stand symbolic of grand themes.

The Moth Love segments, for example, feature a character who is an expert in moths and contain constant references to pheromones and the odour of attraction, both animal and human; Predators takes as its keystone the delicate balance between hunted and hunter and there is therefore a chase-like relationship between the two characters; and Old Chestnuts, by far the most interesting of the threads, uses the idea of a man trying to resurrect the indigenous American chestnut, which has been all but wiped out by pests, and in so doing the story relates to ageing and the past and its inter-relationship with the future – just as the characters in this thread do.

All of this could just about work if there were only one thread and one set of metaphorical tales to relate to it, but with three of them at play it feels as though on every other page there is a reference which the reader is expected to spot and say, ‘Aha! I understand! That’s very important!’

In the end, it all feels intrusive. It is the author saying, ‘look at me, aren’t I clever, the way I’m weaving all these narratives into a coherent thematic framework?’ This is an obsession in contemporary literature, this clever-clever splicing of narrative and theme, as though plot exists only to explicate theme and theme cannot survive without plot. There is, indeed, a symbiosis betweeen the two, but it is taken to such extremes in this kind of Coetzeean writing that it becomes overpowering and, in the end, that is all the reader sees: a clever writer weaving intricate patterns. It’s the literary equivalent of macrame.

The disappointment here is that it is not even necessary. Prodigal Summer is a fine story, very well told, and it doesn’t need all this conscious fabrication. It becomes fussy, over-elaborate, stifling. The stories of Deanna, Lusa, Nannie and Garnett do not need it. I would much rather have read their stories than Barbara Kingsolver’s attempt to ‘write a novel’. Less artifice, less preaching, more heart.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Herman Melville and the City of God

I was reading Moby Dick today and reached Chapter 91, which is one of Ishmael’s regular digressions into a completely unrelated tale, this one about the laws of England, specifically that which says that ‘of all whales captured by anybody on the coast of that land, the King, as Honorary Grand Harpooneer, must have the head, and the Queen be respectfully presented with the tail.’ Such emoluments are then traditionally assigned to whichever Lord Warden has jurisdiction over the waters in question, in this case the Duke of Wellington.

There follows a very funny scene in which a whaler, having landed a whale, tries to bargain with the Lord Warden’s agent, arguing that the whalers have done all the work so deservedthe whale, and that the Lord Warden is rich enough not to need such free gifts and so on. To each argument, the response is invariable: ‘It is his.’

This put me very much in mind of Bartleby the Scrivener, with Bartleby’s continuous response of ‘I would prefer not to.’ (Although, of course, Bartleby was written after Moby Dick, indeed it was Melville’s response to its poor reception, so strictly speaking Bartleby should put me in mind of Moby Dick. But anyway...)

The unvarying nature of the responses in these two cases is very similar and, given that it is the same author, it is likely that Melville was at the very least conscious of the similarity, if not intentionally invoking it. Which is slightly curious.

The tenor of the Moby Dick passage, although humorous, suggests that Melville is setting down the law as it stands and is not particularly disagreeing with it. This is the way of things, he is saying. Similarly, with Bartleby the Scrivener, although Bartleby’s intransigence is initially irritating, one comes, in time, to admire, respect, even approve of his contrariness. Therefore, one might suggest, there are indeed strong parallels between the two, and in each case Melville is inviting our approval.

However, the two examples are also entirely dissimilar. The Moby Dick example relates to property and ownership, both human concepts and inventions – the realm of the material: we are firmly placed here, in Augustinian terms, in the city of man.

Bartleby, however, seems to me a wholly spiritual man. I am sure that Bartleby the Scrivener is a Christian allegory and Bartleby’s torment is that of an angel in the city of man; when he dies, he goes, in the Augustinian view of existence, to the City of God. This, St Augustine’s conception of the two cities, of God – ie, the spiritual – and of Man – ie, the material – was something that Melville, a strong Christian, would have held to be true. For example, Chapter 41 of Moby Dick – a key chapter in which the initial clash between Ahab and the white whale is described, includes the following passage (my italics):

The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil;--Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it.

So, Melville clearly makes the Augustinian distinction between the two cities in his writing. And he appears to be referring to the respective cities in his descriptions of the acquisitive Duke and the spiritual Bartleby. And yet, in seeking to portray these opposite cities, he employs the identical rhetorical technique.It feels like a curious contradiction to me.

Unless I’m reading it wrong, which is entirely probable. If anyone can put me right, please do.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy



Outer Dark is Cormac McCarthy’s second novel, set in his native southern America and published in 1968, and it is certainly a product of its time and place. Reading this compendium of southern gothicry, it is as though William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor never died: the gargoyles are back in their blackened landscapes, gurning their way through a fractured, tortured existence, while God is in his isolated splendour watching the fall and fall and fall of man. If that sounds unduly dismissive, let me say that this may be McCarthy’s finest work; and it is certainly the one which is most important in terms of finding a way into the opaque world of this most peculiar author.

The basic plot is, as usual with McCarthy, pretty sparse. It opens with the incestuous birth of a child to brother and sister, Culla and Rinthy Holme. Culla is embarrassed by the birth, won’t allow anyone else to be present for it, and once the child is born he takes it into the woods and abandons it, telling his sister only that it was poorly and died. The child is subsequently found and taken by a tinker and Rinthy, not believing her brother’ story, sets out in search of it. Culla then sets of in search of her. Their respective quests are chronicled through the novel. In the case of Rinthy, in each meeting she finds hospitality and friendship. Culla, on the other hand, finds animosity and suspicion, is taken advantage of, is accused of crimes he has not committed, is robbed, and generally he struggles to exist.

Perhaps in pursuit, perhaps simply traversing this god-forsaken country for themselves, three strange, unexplained men or creatures weave in and out of the story, coming ever closer to the couple and their benighted child, until ultimately – this being Cormac McCarthy – there is a bloody and brutal (and largely unexplained) conclusion.

Dan Geddes calls Outer Dark a world ‘devoid of God’,[1] but this is a fundamental misinterpretation of McCarthy’s position, one that is consistently, if understandably made of his oeuvre. God is indeed largely absent in this novel, but that is by no means the same as saying the novel is devoid of his presence: on the contrary, God is a brooding, troubled, troublesome presence throughout this novel precisely because of his continued and high-profile absence. Even when he does feature, for example when a storekeeper refuses to serve Holme because, ‘We still christians here. You’ll have to come back a weekday,’ it serves only to amplify the godlessness of the main characters: immediately following this reverse, Holme is seen, ‘sat on a stone by the side of the road and with a dead stick [he] drew outlandish symbols in the dust.’ Meanwhile, a kindly woman asks Holme’s sister, Rinthy, ‘I don’t believe you been saved have ye?’ What we have, then, is a world of darkness, where morality is compromised and God is unkown and unknowable. The scene is set in the opening paragraphs, brooding and dark:

She shook him awake into the quiet darkness... She shook him awake from dark to dark, delivered out of the clamorous rabble under a black sun...

Once established, throughout this novel the darkness never ceases. We have ‘sunless’ woods, dark roads and cottages, blackness, death. Rinthy is described, ‘poised between the maw of the dead and loveless house and the outer dark like a frail thief.’ Outer Dark itself, of course, is a biblical reference, from Matthew 25:30 (‘And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth’). This, then, is a very metaphysical darkness. Near the end, the tinker tells Rinthy: ‘Hard people makes hard times. I’ve seen the meanness of humans till I don’t know why God ain’t put out the sun and gone away.’ And this darkness is taken to its logical extreme with several references to blindness, that standard Southern Gothic trope for godlessness and lack of grace. In what could almost be a reference to Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes, one character says:

In a world darksome as this’n I believe a blind man ort to be better sighted than most. I believe it’s got a good deal to recommend it. The grace of God don’t rest easy on a man. It can blind him easy as not.

Thus, although God is absent from the pages of this novel, it can be seen that his spirit most certainly is not. In later years, we are told, Holme ‘used to meet a blind man, ragged and serene, who spoke him a good day out of his constant dark.’ This blind man, the personification of a ‘prophet’ seen by Holme in a dream at the beginning of the book (and clearly, also, an early version of Ely in The Road), debates his blindness. ‘What needs a man to see his way when he’s sent there anyhow?’ he asks Holme. Hazel Motes, in his quiet room, could only have nodded blindly in agreement.

Christopher Metress elaborates on this element, describing it as a ‘nothingness’ at the novel’s centre. This he likens to a via negativa, a way of coming to know God through contemplating nothingness, through an examination of unknowing, through thinking of what God is not, rather than what he is.[2] Thus, God is shrouded in darkness. This is very different from Geddes’s view that Outer Dark is ‘devoid of God.’ In this theory, God certainly exists, but man cannot comprehend his mystery. For some characters in the novel, this is sufficient. An old man to whom Holme goes for shelter, for example, someone who ‘wouldn’t turn Satan away’, suggests, ‘Even a snake ain’t all bad. They’s put here fore some purpose. I believe they’s a purpose to everything.’

Holme, however, cannot see, and chooses not to. ‘I ain’t never much studied it,’ he replies. Thus, throughout the novel, in his rejection of attempts to understand he becomes increasingly embroiled in events that seem to gather around him in ever more chaotic and dangerous ways. He works – works hard – but never sees any reward. He is blamed when things go wrong – most catastrophically when the pigs being droved take fright and stampede over a cliff (another reference to the gospel of Matthew). Indeed, as he traverses the Appalachian countryside Holme is stalked by death, leaving behind him a trail of destruction. This is the unknown, unknowing God at work, and yet Culla is completely oblivious of it. So too is his sister, blithely passing through in her search for her child, incognisant of the goodness that attends her. We know not what we do, McCarthy is telling us.

As a message, this could almost be palatable. The concept of an omniscient but detached deity is commonly understood and, indeed, typical atheistic questions about ‘how a god could allow evil things to happen’ are every bit as facile as the unthinking veneration they purport to criticise. But McCarthy’s god is not as detached as it appears, and nor are McCarthy’s humans as free of will as might be supposed. Leo Daugherty has written persuasively about the gnostic tendencies of McCarthy’s writing, particularly in Blood Meridian.[3] Outer Dark, too, shows traces of gnosticism, with its seeming contention that there is evil abroad, an evil that, inescapably, surrounds everything that happens to this brother and sister and the tinker and the child. In so doing, McCarthy descends into mysticism, with the three strange travellers who track their way through the book, wreaking some form of vengeance on everyone with whom they come into contact. They are described in typically elliptical fashion, so one is never quite sure who or what they are. Indeed, at one stage McCarthy even describes them as ‘parodic’, suggesting he is perhaps playing with his readers in much the way that his most famous character, Judge Holden from Blood Meridian, might. Elsewhere, they attract more mythic description: ‘Like revenants that reoccur in lands laid waste with fever: spectral, palpable as stone.’ So there they are, warriors across time, wanderers through destruction, the messengers, perhaps, of the gods. Rich and inventive mythologising, some might argue; cheap pyrotechnics, others might counter.

But, in the end, these three figures are meaningless. They seem to inhabit the novel specifically to invest it with some immutable strangeness, to suggest that this novel – which is, at heart, a simple story of incest and love – is somehow speaking of greater things, telling deeper truths. It is easy to become seduced by McCarthy’s extraordinary prose, and to accept the mystery of these beings. But, in the end, they are mere, unthinking automatons. They fulfil precisely the same function as Chugurh in No Country For Old Men or the Glanton gang in Blood Meridian, or the cannibals of The Road: they represent the innate evil of humanity and the world – that, after all, being in gnostic terms the outcome of our Fall – the inability of man to achieve redemption, the impossibility of knowing God.

But again, like Flannery O’Connor before him, what McCarthy does is simply to create cartoons and caricatures. There is no emotional depth here. People die. There is suffering, pain. None of these characters exist, other than as vehicles for a message. For all the brilliance of McCarthy’s words, for all the metaphysical truth he wishes to impart, because of the shallowness of his approach, ultimately he says nothing of any consequence.

[References removed to deter plagiarism. If you wish to know a specific reference, email me and let me know.]

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The End of Alice by A. M. Homes




The End of Alice is a difficult book. It confronts readers on territory they would rather not admit to inhabiting; it forces issues normally silenced; it raises the prospect that all of us, maybe, in different circumstances… well, these things are difficult to talk about, it’s a form of damage and I’m not like that, voyeurism is one thing, prurience, we all do to some extent, but not that, no more, not me…

The main character is a paedophile, now ageing after twenty-three years in prison for his crimes, and approaching a parole board hearing which might free him. Amongst the plethora of correspondence he receives, and has done throughout his years of incarceration, are letters from a nineteen year-old girl who, in sweetly reasonable terms, tells him of her plans to seduce a ten year old boy in her neighbourhood. At first, it is any ten-year old, then she fixes on a particular child, and she puts her plan into action, and her letters become increasingly explicit as she unfolds her story. Interwoven with this are the prisoner’s memories, focusing with increasing clarity on the story of Alice, the affair with Alice, the end of Alice, the sordid and bloody events which have brought him to this pass.

Homes is in dangerous, though illustrious territory here. Lolita is the obvious comparison, but Bret Easton Ellis and others have tried to examine the truth behind criminality and moral degeneracy. There is a long tradition of confronting taboos through literature – all the way back, in fact, to Oedipus himself – and using the word to seek to understand the deed. But Homes instils her story with a deeply unsettling sense of wonder. This novel is not an illustration, it is a mirror. And there are big questions to ask of this mirror: what is it distorting?; how much is it distorting?; how much of this is, indeed, reality?

We don’t know, first of all, whether the girl’s story is true or fabricated. We don’t, as the story progresses, ultimately know even whether the girl is real, or simply a part of the prisoner’s perverted imagination. We don’t know whether his own backstory is real, or at least in the way it is told to us. Paedophiles, after all, are notoriously adept at shifting reality, at using their own narcissism to paint a pastoral scene where should be a vision from Hieronymus Bosch. And, more importantly, making us believe it.

And so, here, we have the notion that Alice, pre-pubescent but startlingly aware, is as much initiator as victim. It seems entirely credible. A dangerously damaged individual herself, it is her misfortune (or fortune, in her eyes, or in the prisoner’s interpretation of her eyes?) to come into contact with one man who can unleash those latent impulses in her. Thus, they begin a torrid affair, mutual, seemingly an affair of equals, and it is told to us in explicit detail – reader as voyeur, as participant, a difficult place to be.

What is clear is that these are deeply damaged individuals. Alice is a tragic soul whose fate, one feels, has been sealed since the day she was born. The prisoner, still violent, still a sexual predator, is an enigmatic character, his wit and learning making him, on the surface, almost appealing. But to the end he remains in denial. The nineteen year-old girl is suffocating in a family which cares too deeply but in too shallow a fashion – and that is a contradiction in terms that will be immediately familiar to thousands of teenagers. Even when she tries to commit suicide by swallowing her mother’s pills, her parents don’t realise what is happening and instead blame her subsequent vomiting on eating something that disagreed with her. Their response is to send her on a trip (alone) to Europe: at once caring and complacent. They worry enough to see there is a problem, but not enough to penetrate what it really is. That could stand for all of the characters in this novel, and it could stand for every one of us. Reader, see yourself.

In one of her letters, the girl asks the prisoner: ‘Am I supposed to feel sorry for you or think you’re grotesque?’ His reply is that ‘a bit of both would be about right.’

And a bit of both it is. This is a chilling, powerful, deeply intelligent novel. It offers no easy avenues. It refuses to allow the prisoner to become our all-purpose, utility hate-object, one of those tabloid creatures on whom we, as a society, can pour all our revulsion and fear and blame. No-one is completely guilty, and nor is anyone completely innocent. To quote the judge-penitent in Camus’s The Fall:

If pimps and thieves were invariably sentenced, all decent people would get to thinking they themselves were constantly innocent, cher Monsieur. And in my opinion… that’s what must be avoided at all costs. Otherwise, everything would be just a joke.

The End of Alice makes us reflect. We are not allowed the comfort of easy answers, simple categories, black and white. And that is no joke.

Lucidity; or losing the light

… you must have noticed that our old Europe at last philosophizes in the right way. We no longer say as in simple times: ‘This is my opinion. What are your objections?’ We have become lucid. For the dialogue we have substituted the communique. ‘This is the truth,’ we say. ‘You can discuss it as much as you want; we aren’t interested. But in a few years there’ll be the police to show you I’m right.’
Albert Camus. The Fall, p. 35


Ah, our Blunketts and our Straws, fulfilling prophesies. Firstly, they refuse to discuss - really discuss - matters of liberty (or anything, come to that), preferring instead to lecture and hector and assure us that, well-intentioned fools that we be, we are simply wrong.

And then they establish the instruments of power - the police, the agencies, the never-ceasing surveillance - to ensure that in years to come, when we have not learned our lesson, we will be forced to do so.

Camus, remember, understood evil. He lived through it. He fought it. He never surrendered to it in the name of fear.