Monday, August 31, 2009

The best southern novels of all time

This could be an interesting exercise. Oxford American asked 134 experts which are the best southern novels of all time. The top ten are here, and there are no real surprises. Glad to see Huck Finn surviving censorship and foolish misinterpretation, though.

Later, however, OA propose to list all 500 or so novels which were mentioned by at least one expert. That could be a fascinating list, and I'll be watching out for it coming online.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Guernica


Taken from Alias MacAlias, the collected writings of Hamish Henderson:

The story goes that during the Nazi occupation of France Otto Abetz [German ambassador to the Vichy] paid Picasso a courtesy call in his Paris studio. During the conversation Abetz caught sight of Guernica and exclaimed incredulously: 'Good God, did you do that?' 'No,' replied Picasso, 'you did that.'

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Political religions

A few posts ago I mentioned the danger of an over-reliance on pure rationalism, the new godhead of science, that infallible force that binds us all, and mentioned Richard Dawkins, with his almost zealotry in pursuit of the superstitious with their religions. I believe this is a danger, for all that I agree with Dawkins almost entirely. Here is Eric Voegelin, writing in Vienna in 1938:

It is always dreadful to hear that National Socialism is a regression to barbarism, to the Dark Ages, to the times before the more recent advances towards humanism, without the speaker’s sensing that the secularisation of life, which the concept of humanism brought with it, is precisely the soil in which anti-Christian religious movements such as National Socialism could grow. The religious question is taboo for these secularizing minds. And to pose it seriously and radically seems suspect to them – perhaps even a barbarism and return to the Dark Ages.


That’s a fascinating quote because, although my immediate instinct is to disagree with it, it’s hard, in the light of what occurred in Europe within months of Voegelin writing that, to argue against it. Rationalists who cannot countenance any semblance of the spiritual or supernatural would do well to consider this point. The fact that Dawkins or I, for example, do not believe in trans-mundane powers is to some extent irrelevant, because there is something hardwired into the human brain which appears to require them. And, if God is killed, human beings will replace him with something else. In 1930s Germany it was a new political religion called National Socialism.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

An unfinished poem

This is an unfinished poem by Keith Douglas:

Actors waiting in the wings of Europe
we already watch the lights on the stage
and listen to the colossal overture begin.
For us entering at the height of the din
it will be hard to hear our thoughts, hard to gauge
how much our conduct owes to fear or fury.

Everyone, I suppose, will use these minutes
to look back, to hear music and recall
what we were doing and saying that year
during our last few months as people, near
the sucking mouth of the day that swallowed us all
into the stomach of a war. Now we are in it


and no more people, just little pieces of food
swirling in an uncomfortable digestive journey,
what we said and did then has a slightly
fairytale quality. There is an excitement
in seeing our ghosts wandering...


It was written as he waited with his troops (he was only 24, but a tank troop commander), to begin the assault on Normandy beaches. Three days later he was killed by a mortar shell.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Music For Torching by AM Homes


Music For Torching was AM Homes’s next novel after the daringly controversial The End of Alice, a fact which may explain much. The End of Alice (reviewed here) was a portrait of a paedophile which presented the protagonist as a more rounded and considered individual than is normally the case for such characters, and an explosion of righteous outrage duly followed. Homes, then, is clearly not an author afraid of offending, nor of taking risks with her fiction. She is also an extremely gifted crafter of a novel and deliciously funny. Now, controversial and funny are often ideal bedfellows – think Lenny Bruce – but there are always pressures to be addressed and humour can easily slip over into fatuity.

That said, for nine-tenths, maybe nineteen-twentieths, maybe even ninety-nine one-hundredths of this novel I thought it was brilliant. It dragged me along relentlessly, and I was totally taken into the lives of these (bizarre) characters. It is the ending that causes the difficulty. More of that later.

We’re in typical Homes territory here: dysfunctional adults, behaving mostly like adolescents but on the cusp of a crisis. This is played for laughs, like something out of a grungier Joseph Connolly or Mavis Cheek, but Homes is also a serious writer, and in her comedy of disintegration there is always a tart rejoinder to modern society: Alice presented us with a disquieting mirror, forcing us to confront some unpalatable truths, while This Book Will Save Your Life asked questions about the nature of community and friendship. Music For Torching is a farce which focuses on the way we use people, take them for granted, look for our own gratification first. At least that’s what I decided at the end.

We first meet Paul and Elaine when Paul is wrestling Elaine’s pantyhose down while she attempts to wash up, and she inflicts a neck wound on him with a knife. They fuck, riotously. Not much later, they decide they’ve had enough, set fire to their house and flee the banality of their existence, with their two children in tow, heading for a nearby hotel. So, it seems, we’re in stale and jaded suburbia, midway between Carver and Cheever in the social scale, but with an outrageous quality to the plotting which is all Homes. A sexual roundabout ensues. Elaine has a lesbian tryst with her neighbour and friend, the Stepford Wife Pat, and later, unsuccessfully, brutally, with a policeman; Paul is screwing his son’s best friend’s mom, and also the passive-aggressive mistress of his best friend, a woman who, during a lunchtime rendezvous, encourages him to have his groin tattooed. Not an easy thing to explain to your wife, one would think, but given that Paul has previously shaved off all his body hair and taken to wearing sheer nightgowns, it is perhaps not surprising that he gets away with it. Even the children get in on the act: the couple’s oldest son, a morose and uncommunicative boy, has a stash of fat-women porn in his bedroom, which Paul later uses himself in one of his rare moments of solitude.

All of this sounds like slapstick, and yet it works because Homes’s prose is so clean and crisp. She doesn’t play it purely for laughs and, all the while we are immersed in Paul and Elaine’s world, it feels entirely credible that someone should take an axe to the living room table or that the architects would aim a wrecking ball at the house while the family are still in it, waving out at them. The novel creates, then, a register of its own, and it seduces the reader into its strange, hallucinogenic world. Or does it?

As I said, the ending of the novel is a difficulty for me. Without wishing to give much away, the register I referred to – of barely restrained, comedic hysteria – slips entirely into something else. The shift is extraordinary. It is a slap in the face. It is so unsubtle it must surely have been deliberate, because Homes is a superb writer, but why? After reading the ending, I had the horrible feeling that I had completely misread the preceding 350 pages and that this novel has a much more malevolent soul than I had imagined. Where This Book Will Save Your Life ended in the same hopeful joi de vivre that had inhabited the rest of the novel, here the similar tone of much of Music For Torching is not replicated in the ending. For me, it doesn’t work; it feels cold and manipulative, out of sympathy with what had gone before. It tries to pack an emotional punch, but nothing has set up the reader for that punch so, when it comes, it feels only dull rather than exerting any power. The characterisation has, throughout, been of a kind which does not engage the sympathy of the reader so much as his or her support. There is a big difference. When the crisis comes at the end, the reader is not prepared for it and not able to respond appropriately. Quite simply, I hadn’t been led to care enough, and it all fell flat.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Anschauung

We live in a rational age, one of science, empirical fact, historical and chronological truth. This is a glorious thing, bequeathed us by the giants of the enlightenment, but it may be taken too literally; it may, if we become beholden to it, be too crude a tool with which to fashion a society. The ‘sovereign fact,’ as Barthelme described it, becomes all: the need for rationality, the search for concrete knowledge, becomes almost a religion in itself. Think, for example, of how Richard Dawkins has taken his brilliant analysis of evolution and become obsessed with using it to discredit religion; in so doing, he is creating the religion of Darwinism: truth! Fact! Evidence! The DNA trail to the start of it all!

Erich Heller, in a study of Jacob Burckhardt and Nietzsche, makes the following obervation:

‘As a historian,’ [Burckhardt] once wrote, ‘I am lost where I cannot begin with Anschauung.’ It is a Goethean word and hardly translatable. Its connotations are visual, and it means the mental process by which we spontaneously grasp, through observation aided by intuition, a thing in its wholeness. Goethe uses it as the opposite of analysis, the mental approach which he feared would establish itself as the dominant habit of an age fascinated by Newtonian Physics, only to destroy all culture of the intellect. Sometimes Burckhardt even felt it to be a nuisance that the historian, in presenting his historical narrative, was bound by the chronological order compelling him to tell one thing after the other when the true order ‘could only be represented as a picture’.

Our modern conception of time is, of course, utterly chronological. We cannot grasp the aboriginal concept of ‘everywhen’, a mythical time in which everything exists concurrently and the moment is eternal. To our rational minds, this cannot be possible: time passes, moments are lived and cannot be relived; anything other is superstition and not to be tolerated. But chronology is merely one way of interpreting history, just as rational analysis is only one way of understanding a subject. The intuitive thinker, the non-conformist, the unconventional, they need to be given space to approach their subjects. We’re in danger of denying them that.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Under The Volcano by Malcolm Lowry


I won’t pretend to have read every word of Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano, but I’ve spent the evening with it, and a fascinating novel it is. Lowry presses a relentless vision on us, through the alcoholic miasma and hallucinogenic existence of Geoffrey Firmin, and it’s certainly not a comfortable (or easy) read, but it undoubtedly forces the reader to think. Set during Mexico’s Day of the Dead, the novel leads inexorably towards a literal death that is, if not foretold, then at least inevitable. And that word ‘inevitable’ is significant: I initially wrote ‘unsurprising’, but that is insufficient. In the context of the novel and, more importantly, in the context of its symbolism, the death is indeed inevitable although, at that symbolic level, this is a difficult admission for me.

The destructive tendency of Firmin, the central character, is powerfully drawn, and his alcoholic disintegration is entirely plausible. I know first hand that, for such people, the choice whether or not to drink becomes less and less tangible, more abstract, less rooted in reality, until finally it becomes no choice at all. It is at this point they proclaim most loudly that they are free to choose, and denial takes the place of reality. This state may serve for years, and it is a state of honest denial, but eventually there is a moment with all alcoholics when they know what they have done, what they are doing and what they are going to do. They experience the loneliness of a single grain of sand floating in the ocean. It is as though, in that instant, they take themselves out of time and see themselves, just once, as others see them. It only lasts a moment and then it is gone, but in that moment, without being bidden, the one, the final question is raised and without hesitation the decision is made: death or not. For Firmin, like Papa Hemingway, like countless others before and after, the answer is not not.

Firmin gradually comes to repress all belief and negate all experience. He finds himself in a solitary maelstrom, spinning forever in the void where contact with humanity should have been. His own consciousness no longer maps with that of those around him and the wider his hallucinations cast, the narrower his true world becomes. By the end, he is no longer really alive in any valid sense: a living death is all that remains. His real death comes as a relief, both for him and for the reader.

I suppose the question is how much of all this is symbolic of the hell of existence? Lowry did compare Under The Volcano to Dante’s inferno, after all, and throughout Firmin’s alcoholic musings, there are hints of evil at play – whether or not, for example, he was responsible for the murder of prisoners of war during the First World War – so we have, on a concrete level, a living hell which is replicated and amplified by the alcoholic hell in which Firmin has lost himself. And at the same time, Firmin definitely has a mystical side – albeit chemically enhanced much of the time – which suggests the possibility of paradise. And so Lowry presents us with the human condition: our entrapment in an earthly hell, with the prospect of heaven tantalisingly, impossibly out of reach. So much, so familiar. This is territory I’ve been exploring recently in the works of McCarthy and Hermann Hesse and others, and which I’ve been trying to reason against: hell is Earth.

I suppose, since Lowry is symbolising our teetering position at the interchange of heaven and hell as the choice between alcoholic death and human life, he is at least leaving the mechanics of transcendence with us, rather than the robotic fatalism of McCarthy or Hesse, and for that I’m grateful. Choice is ours, but that choice is not easy: there is more at play, as McCarthy and Hesse demonstrate, than just our free will but it is Lowry who shows us that the deus ex machina is not supernatural, but entirely chemical: and that chemical is not alcohol, but something hidden in the human brain. We all have it in us to self-destruct. In our honest denial, most of us are not aware of the fact, but fact it remains, and imperceptibly, perhaps, our choices diminish into nothingness.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mike Seeger 1933-2009

Mike Seeger, half brother of Pete, has died.

Demian by Hermann Hesse


Demian is a bildungsroman outlining the path to maturity of Emil Sinclair and his attendant awakening of unconscious and realisation of the self. When the story begins, Sinclair is a ten year old boy living a comfortable, bourgeouis existence in the early years of the twentieth century. Despite the ease of his existence, though, he is unsettled; he is conscious of two worlds – the world of light and safety, that of his parents, and the one outside – of darkness, dangerous and yet, in a way, appealing. Thus is set in train the ambiguity and duality at the heart of his being, and thus begins his quest for something else, his rebellion against the comfort of his safe family life.

His early years are shaped by two people: firstly, Franz Kromer, a typical small-town bully who extorts money from him and exacts favours; and secondly Max Demian, a strange, otherworldly boy, a couple of years older in age but appearing considerably more mature, almost adult. With Demian’s help, Sinclair breaks free from the tyranny of Franz Kromer and the two become friends. Demian is an enigmatic, almost magnetic character, and he begins to teach Sinclair about life, existence, the world: it is up to each individual, he tells him, to shape his own destiny. He shocks the younger boy with his radical interpretation of the story of Cain and Abel: the mark of Cain, he says, is not something to be deplored, but is rather a mark of distinction, and Cain’s act was not one of evil, but of necessity. Moreover, those who bear the mark of Cain – and it is clear that this includes both Demian and Sinclair – are in some way superior to the common herd. Sinclair listens to the older boy with a mixture of horror and fascination and gradually finds himself questioning all the certainties in his life. In this way, he embarks on his quest for knowledge and self-realisation.

Over the course of his early life he loses touch with Demian, first leaving for boarding school and then university but, even then, when crisis points in his life emerge, he finds he can reach out to his friend and, somehow, contact is made. Along the way the questing boy also attaches himself to further mentors, to the older schoolboy Alfons Beck who leads him, once more, from the safety of conventionality, the world of light, encouraging him to drink with such abandon that he comes close to being expelled from school; and Pistorius, the eccentric pastor and organist who teaches him gnostic theory and aspires himself to be a great leader of men towards a new religion. Each, in his way, teaches Sinclair something of life and acts as a guide across the various stages on the way to mature realisation, but neither is able to provide for him the solution – the salvation – he seeks. That must come, of course, from Max Demian, and from his mother, Frau Eva.

In the novel’s final third, Sinclair comes ever closer to Demian and especially Frau Eva, who is, for him, the personification of perfection, a symbol of life in all its affirmation, at once a mother, a friend, a guide and – in aspiration at least – a lover. You want me, she tells him, but to allow that he must first make her desire him: then she will come to him. And, slowly, uncertainly, Sinclair makes progress. He will, one feels, reach realisation sooner rather than later, but before that state can be reached, at the novel’s end a rupture emerges in the shape of war, and Sinclair and Demian are both sent to the front. Man may find self-knowledge, it seems, but mankind is forever on a path which leads to pain and anger.

Demian is one of those novels, like Catcher in the Rye or Catch 22 which it is probably important to encounter when young and idealistic. I first read it when I was a teenager and thought it was outstanding. I then read Siddhartha and it blew my mind. Afterwards, I pretended I’d read Steppenwolf and then I got fatally stuck on the Glass Bead Game, but even so I was pompously clear in my mind that Hermann Hesse was an important writer. It’s odd, then, that so little of Demian has actually stayed with me. Re-reading it now, I honestly couldn’t remember much of it from that first reading so many years ago. Is that a weakness in me or the novel? Both, I think.

Demian is, by all accounts, an extremely autobiographical novel, written over a very short period of time when the author was undergoing considerable personal traumas – the death of his father, a life-threatening illness to his son and mental breakdown of his wife. Even the world was undergoing a mental trauma – the novel was written in 1917, three years into the horrors of the First World War, and this duly appears in the novel, thus allowing the outside world, that of the ‘herd’, to intrude on and impede the knowledge-seeking existence of the main protagonists. Hesse spoke out at the time against the prevailing public mood in wartime Germany and suffered considerable hostility as a result. It must have been an unbearable time for him, and it is unsurprising that he entered psychoanalysis. Thus, the bewilderment and alienation that comes from such a series of uncontrollable stresses comes across clearly in the novel. So too does Hesse’s investigations into pyschotherapy and Jungian analysis. The series of mentors to whom Sinclair attaches himself each takes the role of analyst, each offers the boy – Hesse himself? – an explanation for the confusion he is suffering.

Where, as a youth, I could relish the controlled pessimism of the novel – it spoke to my concerns and a typically teenaged solipsistic worldview – now I find its moralising forced and didactic. My main difficulty, I think, is one that I have with a lot of modernist writing, that of fatalism, destiny, determinism. I can’t go along with the Heraclitian notion that character equates to destiny and yet, in Demian, Hesse seems to be implying as much or, at very least, that destiny will override character. It doesn’t have to be that way. (I suppose it comes to something when I’m more idealistic than Hermann Hesse, but there you go.) Demian begins in much the same vein (I seem to recall) as Siddhartha, focusing on the search for self and self-fulfilment, but as it proceeds the darkness which must have overtaken Hesse personally at the time begins to dominate, and by the end of the novel it has changed in tenor and the self, freedom of will, find themselves buried beneath that overwhelming, overpowering sense of fate. Thus, it seems, no matter how Sinclair strives to reach Frau Eva – perfection – the brute realities of existence – in the shape, here, of war – will of necessity intervene.

I think it may be that Demian can only be read in conjunction with Siddhartha – allowing the hope of the latter to overcome the darkness of the former, like an alkaline neutralising acid. Certainly, it was written during wartime and is clearly a product of its time; and equally (if one allows the anachronism of hindsight), the future history of Hesse’s country could be argued to justify the pessimism of his view. But what I can’t reconcile is the bluntness of the dialectic Hesse presents: there is Sinclair’s world of light and his world of dark, and they remain incompatible; there is his private quest for enlightenment and the worldly intervention of fate and, again, the corollary is negative, mired in the loss of hope.

And, ultimately, this loss of hope seems final. The ending of the novel is opaque, to say the least, but the only sensible interpretation seems to be that Sinclair is dying, and that he is being visited by the spirit (memory?) of Demian. Hope, then, aspiration, the flight of consciousness, the perfection of Frau Eva, is lost. It is, in fact, difficult to square this ultimate pessimism with the foreword of the novel: ‘If we were not something more than unique human beings, if each one of us could really be done away with once and for all by a single bullet, storytelling would lose all purpose.’ There is something beautiful and uplifting about that. It reminds me strongly of Sorley Maclean’s Hallaig, his paean to the lost generations of his island people, in which a single bullet from the ‘gun of love’ will ensure that the memory of his people will indelibly remain ‘while I live’. But for all the poetry of his foreword, what Hesse is doing in the subsequent novel is inverting that human power and human beauty. He is filtering it through the prism of religion, either Christian or gnostic, it is difficult to say which: Sinclair is dying, he will die, he must, but do not fear because in death there will be life; salvation will come. Meanwhile, there is only hell, and hell is where Sinclair now resides, the hell of Flanders field. We have reached the Apocalypse. It becomes a story, then, not about Sinclair, the everyman, the human being, but rather a story of the godhead, the continuing struggle of man the archetype with brute existence towards a final transcendence. And when it does that, this reader loses all connection with the story, with the characters, the humanity. Unique human beings? Not while Hesse’s, modernity’s, waste land is imposed on us.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Faulkner on technique

From the past few posts you may have guessed that I picked up a copy of the Paris Review interviews (vol 2) for a couple of quid in the cheap book shop the other day... Here's Faulkner on technique:

Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error.

I think this is the most important point about writing craft. And most people who call themselves writers aren't, because they simply don't write enough. I've been on a few writing forums in my time, and only one was good, because it made the writer write, write, write. On all the others, people hardly produce anything new; they just keep rewriting and rewriting the same damned thing. You aren't going to learn anything that way.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Welty on the oral tradition

Also from the Paris Review interviews, Eudora Welty comments on the strength of the oral tradition in southern writing:

Southerners do have - they've inherited - a narrative sense of human destiny... A reunion is everybody remembering together - remembering and relating when their people were born and what happened in their lives, what that made happen to their children, and how it was that they died. There's someone to remember a man's whole life, every bit of the way along... In New York... you don't get that sense of a continuous narrative line. You never see the full circle. But in the South, where people don't move about as much, even now, and where they once hardly ever moved away at all, the pattern of life was always right there.

I've noticed before, and have probably commented on here at some time, the similarity between this southern oral tradition and the oral tradition of the travelling people from where I come from, in central and northern Scotland, and wondered why that might be. I think Welty hits on it here: although, in lifestyles, the static American Southerner is the polar opposite of the old travellers from Scotland who spent their lives moving from place to place, what they have in common is this extraordinary sense of community and, especially, of family. And so the Scots travellers used the oral tradition and their folk tales as a means of recording their family history: those stories became the history, and the oral tradition that emerged as a result became essential to their way of life. So it is that language, the use of words, the rhythm of speech is so important to both the southerners and the travellers. United by the use of language in the service of community.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Eudora Welty

From the Paris Review interviews, on dialogue:

I used to laugh out loud sometimes when I wrote it... I'd think of some things my characters would say, and even if I couldn't use it, I would write the scene out just to let them loose on something - my private show.
...
Well, all these things I would just laugh about and think about for so long and put them in. And then I'd think, that's just plain indulgence. Take it out! And I'd take it out.

A couple of learning points from that, fairly familiar ones, but worth reiterating for all that. Firstly, getting into the mind of your character. If you can't hear them and know what they'd say, how they'd react in any given circumstance, they aren't real and you haven't got into it yet.

Secondly, the old adage of 'kill your babies'. Yes, by all means write out that wonderful dialogue that makes you laugh and helps you understand the character. But unless it's actually saying something that progresses the story, it has to go.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

David Guterson - The Other


John William Barry, the protagonist of David Guterson’s novel, The Other, is the latest in a long line of disturbed, super-intelligent young men who drop out of education, drop out of society, seek a new way of living, see things differently from other mortals. It’s a fairly well-worn idea, this one of the ‘other’, the character who has an other-wordly aura. Think of Demian, for example; and a particularly apt comparison that happens to be, because’s Hesse’s novel played with ideas of gnosticism, which is in turn the driving force for John William’s retreat from civilization into a cave he hews out of a limescale cliff with his own hands.

John William is the reluctant heir to a banking and timber fortune, who early in the novel is seen to endure a chaotic, unhappy childhood (important this, remember it for the ending) which he mitigates by breaking free of a system in which, as he describes it, ‘the stuff they teach you at school is just so they can own you.’ And so he drops acid, smokes doe, goes on expeditions into the wilderness with no map nor provisions, all the while spouting gobbets of gnostic theory to his long-suffering companion, the novel’s narrator, Neil Countryman. Neil describes the gradual process of John William’s alienation, how he buys a mobile home to live in the wilderness and disappears from society so he can carve out his cave in peace. Neil even helps out from time to time and, ultimately, he conspires with John William to fake his disappearance into Mexico so that the authorities (or his parents) will no longer seek to find him and bring him back to a society he has by now completely rejected.

Meanwhile, John William’s increasing isolation is contrasted with Neil’s assimilation into society – wife, children, career, the accoutrements of ‘normality’. Even so, he never forgets his friend, nor fails to offer him support, while not, it seems, quite coming to understand the restless, gnawing sense of alienation which has overcome him. And nor does the reader, sadly, because for all John William’s expositions on gnostic theory, it never quite convinces. How many men (mostly men, it must be said) go through this sense of bewildered otherness in their formative years? Most of them, though – nearly all – come through the other side, gain some experience of life, lose some idealism, reconcile themselves to the facts of ordinary existence. But not John Wlliam, whose total rejection of all vestiges of civilization is so extreme as to be close to absurd. The conclusion of the novel seeks to provide some additional justification for his position, building on his painful childhood (remember that? I told you it was important) but this, sadly, is easily the weakest part of the book.

All of this sounds negative, and that is unfortunate because there is, as ever, much to admire in Guterson’s novel. His prose is beautiful – rhythmic and fluent – and the portrayal of the platonic love between the two main characters is finely drawn. But too much of the plot and, in particular, the motivations, feels slight. The gnosticism, too, feels tacked on, as though to provide a veneer of exotic otherness. And it doesn’t help that Guterson also plays with gnostic ideas, presenting us with Neil and John William, doubles, alter egos, light and dark, a typically gnostic conceit and then, in a case of de trop, presents Neil’s girlfriend (later wife) and her mentally ill sister, another gnostic doubling. It all begins too feel arch and, to work properly, the gnosticism needed to remain with John William, not invade the fabric of Neil’s thoughts too.

However, it is a fascinating read and if they pay-off feels a tad slight, Guterson pulls you relentlessly along on the journey.