I haven’t slept properly for weeks. I lay on damp sheets, my hair on end. I peel myself, and check my phone. I dive into it, as though it were a dream. 4am. 5am. 4am. Circling time, I perceive the screen like a wildcat does a fire bristling in the distance. I lay back, conscious of my dreaming. Always dreaming; always awake. This is not insomnia, which sits on your chest and reads to you, politely pausing on occasions to allow you to interject and ask questions. This is life now. Always dreaming; always awake[…]Sometimes I see tiny, naked figures running along the carpet of my room, and hiding in the corners and behind the chest of drawers. I beckon them toward me, so that I can eat them, and re-emerge, and breach the surface of my unhappiness, for they were part of me once; but they are wise to me; they like me this way[…]For the first time I feel incapable of reading in a way that would allow me to write coherently about what I read. Every book that I pick up becomes part of the landscape of my dreams, of my dream-life, rather than another world into which I consciously escape. The Lime Twig is one. I had tried a number of times before to finish it, losing patience somewhere around halfway. This time, I didn’t finish it either, for you can’t finish something that is part of the fabric of your existence, or at least not until you too are finished[…]It was written by John Hawkes, a man about whom I know very little, and I like it that way. What I do know is that he is an American, and yet The Lime Twig is set in England, and feels English in the same way that Patrick Hamilton’s novels do[…]There is a dreary, grimy atmosphere throughout the book that is familiar to me, from my childhood especially, before the bleak northern city in which I was raised was redeveloped to resemble some fictional European tourist spot, some quaint idea in the mind of an outsider[…]There are references to ‘oily paper,’ to a mother’s ‘greasy bodice,’ to ‘premises still rank with the smells of dead dog or cat.’ There are smells everywhere, such that you experience The Lime Twig with your nose as much as with your eyes. With all your senses, in fact. Holding it, it feels sticky to the touch, dirty, oppressive, like blindly immersing your hand in a sink full of unwashed dishes[…]Oppression is the point, I think. The dreariness is simply one aspect of an overriding atmosphere of unease and uncertainty[…]From the opening paragraph, Hawkes begins to build the tension. When discussing Hencher’s pursuit of lodgings, Hawkes wonders: ‘what was it you saw from the window that made you let the bell continue ringing and the bed go empty another night.’ Suggesting that it was something unnerving, something intangible perhaps, a gut-feeling, an inexplicable foreboding[…]The nature of lodging is, when you think about it, mysterious and disquieting. A lodger is a stranger, someone without a home of their own and, it seems, neither family nor friends upon whom they can depend. Yet they too are potentially vulnerable, entering the home of another, or other strange persons[…]The word ‘nightmarish’, or some variation, is invariably used to describe the book, and for once that feels valid[…]While there is violence, including death, there is nothing about The Lime Twig that is genuinely frightening; plot-wise, in terms of action[…]Although it isn’t always clear what is happening[…]There is a sense of suspended time, or of ‘time slipped off its cycle'[…] The characterisation is thin, with the only one of note – Hencher – early killed off. Hencher, the only one with a story to tell, of life with mother and the war; and it is told wonderfully in the opening section, which Hawkes presents in the first person[…]The nightmare is in the uncertainty, in the murkiness out of which a plane can fall and land at your feet. But most of all it is Hawkes’ imagery that provides the cold water shock[…]The horse is not only a prop the author uses to make of his novel a kind of crime caper, it is ‘the flesh of all violent dreams’, it is an ‘animal whose two ears were delicate and unfeeling, as unlikely to twitch as two pointed fern leaves etched on glass, and whose silver coat gleamed with the colourless fluid of some ghostly libation and whose decorous drained head smelled of a violence that was his own.'[…]One way of looking at the novel would be as a cautionary tale, or as a comment on the humdrum, involving a couple – the Banks – who become embroiled in something dangerous, beyond their abilities and limited emotional scope, a modest wife who waits up for her husband, whose worst nightmare is that he not come home; but for that to work one would have to believe in the couple, and I didn’t. I did, however, believe in the horse, in its potency and magic, and, consequently, ultimately, in Hawkes himself, his imagination and ability to manipulate the English language into sinister and beautiful shapes[…]
‘She wasn’t going to tell you,’ her mother had begun. And then she – her mother – told me. I, for my part, remarked that I hadn’t noticed anything. ‘It only shows when I’m nervous,’ Megan replied, looking at the floor, or something beyond it. ‘She makes all kinds of noises,’ her mother took up, before imitating her daughter’s Tourette’s. ‘If you ever do get nervous,’ I said, ‘don’t worry about it. Everyone gets nervous sometimes.’ I’m not sure now what exactly I was trying to say. I guess I wanted to let her know that her condition wasn’t a big deal for me, although I knew it would be a big deal for her. ‘See, Megan,’ her mother said, smilingly, ‘even normal people get nervous.’ And then there was silence, long enough for me to wonder whether her mother was conscious of her unkindness. Was there some malice in it? Or was it sheer thoughtlessness? And did it even matter? The effect was the same.
“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night.”
Last year I read Barbara Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter. I was impressed by the prose style, but thought it a failure as a novel in almost every other respect. Especially irksome was the characterisation, which was so lacking in subtlety, so predictable, as to be soap opera-ish. Alice’s father, for example, is just plain bad, and his every appearance results in him doing something brutish. His mistress, on the other hand, is the archetypal common tart. Everyone in the novel conforms to a cliche, and, in my opinion, calling it a ‘fairytale’ doesn’t excuse these faults. Consequently, the small number of pages – one hundred and thirty in my edition – felt like a slog; and, bearing in mind that The Vet’s Daughter is often described as Comyns’ most accomplished work, I was reticent to try another. I’m glad, however, that I overcame my reticence as Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, her third novel, might be the best thing I have read this year.
The term ‘gothic’ is consistently applied to Comyns’ books, and the title of this one certainly suggests dark and creepy. Indeed, there are a number of gothic motifs, such as a thunderstorm and a monstrously ugly man with a scarred face; and references are made to ‘tormented screams’ and the ‘stench of evilness.’ Moreover, the novel begins with a flood, with, therefore, disaster; but more tellingly it begins with death. A pig is said to float by, ‘its short legs madly beating the water and tearing at its throat, which was red and bleeding’; then ‘a tabby cat with a distended belly passed, its little paws showing above the water, its small head hanging low.’ As the narrative progresses, the corpses increase in number, and are not at all limited to the animal kingdom. However, unlike with The Vet’s Daughter, I felt as though the violence and bleakness of some of the content serves a purpose, which is to tell us something significant about the characters, and, by extension, people-in-general.
In terms of death, therefore, what is important is not the event itself but people’s reactions to it. When the flood hits one of the first questions asked is: has anyone drowned? And more than one character is eager to see a dead body. Likewise, the turn-out for funerals is high. This sort of gruesome voyeurism is not news, or certainly not to me. There is a reason why there is a spike in newspaper sales, online hits, tv viewing figures, whenever a tragedy strikes; and there is a reason why the death toll is so relentlessly reported. We enjoy this stuff. The higher the count, the grislier the details, the better. The book focuses on the Willoweed family, and it is interesting to note how the two eldest members deal wth death. First, Ebin seeks to make money out of it, to further his career, by writing articles about the quickly expiring locals and selling them to The Daily Courier. The grandmother, on the other hand, gleefully wishes it upon others, bantering with Ives about who will croak first. Finally, both mother and son feel sorry for themselves when one of the family passes away.
As I criticised the characterisation in The Vet’s Daughter I should point out that I had similar misgivings about Grandmother Willoweed, the ‘bad fairy’ or ‘dreadful old black bird’ of the story. The family matriarch is a violent bully, who hits out at her maids with a carpet-beater and calls them names, such as ‘sluts.’ The rest of the Willoweeds, and many of the other villagers, except perhaps old Ives, are fearful of her, and one gets the impression – as with all sadists – that she enjoys it, or at least mistakes it for respect. Yet what makes her slightly more interesting than Alice’s father, what gives her a smidgen of depth, is her age, and therefore her vulnerability. During the course of the novel she has her seventieth birthday. To be that grand age is, I would imagine, to feel powerless, and so one might understand her desire to dominate in terms of that, i.e. as a way of avoiding feeling pathetic. Moreover, one wonders how much of her behaviour might be due to dementia; certainly, she appears to have gone mad towards the end.
As already suggested, Ebin Willoweed is another notable character, and he, thankfully, is not painted in quite such broad strokes. He is initially described as a ‘slothful’ and ‘ineffectual’ man, who is something of a failure, even a fool. His favourite daughter, for example, is clearly not his – Hattie is mixed race – and he is only living with his mother due to having been dismissed from his job because of ‘carelessness.’ However, although he might be a fool, he is evidently not harmless. Emma, the heroine of the novel, states at one point that her father has made her hate men, and for such a compassionate child this strikes one as a telling claim. Yet it is his son, Dennis, who receives the harshest treatment, and who reminded me of my friend Megan. Dennis is a nervous and insular boy, whom Ebin refers to as a ‘cissy.’ When the father takes his son swimming, and Dennis struggles and clings onto the boat, Ebin hits his hands with the oar. It’s the kind of insensitive, small-scale sadism that I wrote about in my introduction, and which is often justified as ‘tough love.’ In this way, and many others, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead struck me, not so much as concerning itself with life’s big questions or issues, but with its little, yet still painful, tragedies.
You and me, she said, could take on the world. And it was easy to believe her, although I knew that she didn’t need any help with that. If she had wanted the world, she could have taken it all by herself. She was high at the time, of course. It was midnight when she called, and I had to be up for work in six hours. She wanted me to watch her sing at a gay bar in town. I couldn’t say no, partly out of a desire to see her and partly out of fear of what she would do if she was disobeyed. She was a deadly kind of beautiful, the kind that if you felt breathless in her presence you couldn’t say with any confidence whether it was love or cyanide poisoning. I was familiar with femmes fatales from films and books, with cold-hearted, dangerous dames with sultry looks, but in real life it wasn’t so glamorous or sexy or exciting. I felt like an amateur snake charmer who is happy just to get through each day without fatal injury. This girl will be the death of me, I once told a friend, and for the first time in my life I meant it.
“Thinking back, I remember the stupidest things; the way there was a taut crease just above her hips, in the small of her back. The way she smelled like a baby’s breath, a sweet barely there smell that retreated and retreated, so that no matter how close you got to it you weren’t sure it was there. The brown speckles in the lavender-gray eyes, floating very close to the surface when I kissed her, the eyes wide open and aware. But not caring. The eyes of a gourmet offered a stale chunk of bread, using it of necessity but not tasting it any more than necessary.”
Black Wings Has My Angel was published in 1953, a little after the greats of hard-boiled crime fiction – Chandler, Hammett, Cain et al – had produced the majority of their best and most cherished work. In fact, one could argue that this goes some way to explaining not only why it was largely forgotten for a number of years but also many of its merits. Those writers were trailblazers, of course, but to be at the vanguard of something means you have no real reference points, no conventions to work within, and no one to learn from; you have to find your own way and make your own mistakes. The novels written during that golden period of the 30’s and 40’s are undeniably appealing, but often the characters lack depth and the plots are convoluted or under-developed. Elliott Chaze, however, was a refiner, in that he took what was already established and gave it finesse. The end result is noir with a kind of Stendhalian sweep, a genuine sense of tragedy, and characters you care about.
One of these characters is Kenneth McLure, aka Tim Sunblade, who narrates the action. My initial impression of Kenneth was that he was the archetypal hard-boiled tough guy. He’s an ex-con, who, he tells us, tried to get himself beaten during his time in prison in order to break the monotony of solitary confinement; he also contemplates murdering anyone who might stand in his way. His narrative style is, as one would expect, punchy and broad-shouldered, featuring lines like: ‘[I let] my mind coast. It needed a lot of coasting.’ Yet, as the story unfolds, Chaze does something unexpected: he allows you to see different sides to Kenneth, his sensitive and vulnerable sides. He is, for example, haunted by the death of his friend, and particularly the image of his bloody, mangled face. He does bad things in the novel, certainly, but he exhibits a conscience at times; in fact, the climax of the story, and his desire to look deep into the abyss of the abandoned shaft, is all about his guilt. Kenneth isn’t a sociopath, like the continental op, he is capable of feeling fear, shame, sorrow and love. He even waxes sentimental about his home town and his childhood sweetheart.
Consequently, one feels as though one gets to know McLure, including both his qualities and his faults, his strengths and his weaknesses. Chaze endeavoured to make him believable, to make him psychologically sound, if not entirely sane. We are told that he was in solitary confinement, as noted previously, and this allows one to make sense of the regular, romanticised, descriptions of scenery and wide open spaces in his narration. Moreover, his conflicted attitude towards death, and his desire to make the most of his time on earth – as though he has been told that he has only twelve months to live – could be put down to his experiences in the war, where he was injured in action. If you have stared death in the face, it is easy to see how it could become more monstrous and yet easier to confront in future. Having said all that, one does wonder whether the author was actually suggesting that Kenneth’s behaviour is a direct result of his head-wound, such that his ‘bad side’ is physical not psychological. This is not a ludicrous idea, although it is less interesting for me personally.
I mentioned love in the previous paragraph, and that may have raised a few eyebrows. Relations between men and women in noir tends towards the wildcat sort. Lust, sure, obsession, maybe, but love seems like a stretch. However, there are moments between Kenneth and Virginia that are genuinely touching. Once again, I believed in them, I, specifically, believed in them as a couple. She is a looker, of course, with legs like a champion racehorse, and he is rough and manly, and there is plenty of good fucking throughout the novel; but there is also tenderness, intimacy; there are, for example, the numerous references to her smell; and there is a scene in which they swap ice back and forth between their mouths, and another in which Kenneth tells Virginia things he never thought he’d tell anybody. In these ways, Black Wings Has My Angel is not a novel about meeting the wrong person at the wrong time, but maybe the right person in the wrong circumstances.
It is also, however, a novel about money and class. I have not written in detail about Virginia so far, partly because she adheres a little too closely to the noir femme fatale stereotype. She is a wise-cracking whore, who doesn’t sleep for thrills anymore. Yet Chaze gives her a backstory too, in which it is revealed that she was once well-to-do. This is important, not because it justifies her expensive tastes, but because it creates tension between the couple, which, in turn, allows Chaze, via Kenneth, to lambast high society. Almost everyone in Black Wings Has My Angel is afforded some level of sympathy, with the exceptions being the police – predictably enough – and the rich, who are thieves of a more socially acceptable sort or idiots. What’s more, towards the end, after he has become moneyed himself, Kenneth states that while he had always wanted to live ‘lazily and glossily’, he has come to realise that it weakens and demotivates you, that it makes you flabby and frivolous. And isn’t that the worst kind of living of all?
For years I approached people as though I was a detective trying to solve a case. I thought logic could be applied to them; I thought that no matter how confusing, how irrational and out of character, any of their behaviour seemed, explanations and answers would be forthcoming if you kept a professional distance and were intelligent and perceptive enough; and that, furthermore, you could, in fact, accurately predict behaviour with a small amount of information. I saw the chaos around me, which so troubled my peers, as being simply a ball of string to untangle. I prided myself on understanding people, even if I only rarely liked them. Then, eighteen months ago I made the decision to climb down from my comfortable vantage point, to engage fully with the world, and found, at closer quarters, that it is surreal and nightmarish, and that any attempt to make sense of it, to impose order upon it, is futile and likely to lead to madness.
I had read Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge once before, around five years ago. At that time, I found it, like many other police procedural novels, fun, easy-going, immediately satisfying, yet ultimately inconsequential. Perhaps I read it too quickly, but more likely my judgement was a result of an overriding complacency. I was happy then. It was not until I picked it up again this week, as a different man, as someone who is not at ease with the world or himself, that I came to appreciate how complex and moving it is. It begins with a chance meeting between a writer of detective novels – who is narrating the action – and a police chief. Not long after they are introduced, the author is offered a ride, during which the chief criticises the detective genre. These novels are, he says, a ‘waste of time,’ not because the culprit is always brought to justice – this he considers to be ‘morally necessary’ – but because they proceed logically. You can’t, he advises the narrator, and me too, albeit too late in my case, ‘come to grips with reality by logic alone.’
As a way of illustrating his point he starts to tell a story about one of his officers, Matthäi, which then dominates the rest of the book. These postmodern, meta-fictional aspects of The Pledge are often praised, yet are, for me, one of its few, but not fatal, flaws. The framing narrative, the meeting between the author and the chief, including his criticisms, are too contrived, are gracelessly executed, and, worse still, unnecessary. It is clear that Dürrenmatt himself is speaking through the policeman when he objects to convenient, predictable plotting, and how at odds it is with reality, but these points could, and are, made far more powerfully in the rest of the novel. The reader does not need them to be spelt out quite so clinically. In fact, these elements have the potential to compromise the intensity of what follows, because one always has in mind that one is listening to a story being recounted; it comes close to taking one out of the action, it weakens, if not breaks, the spell.
The reason that these things do not too negatively impact one’s experience of the book is due, in large part, to the author’s ability to create and maintain a foreboding atmosphere. Even before the main storyline is introduced Dürrenmatt writes about the ‘inhuman silence’ of the Swiss canton, of unnaturally dark days, and of mountains that resemble an ‘immense grave.’ One is given the impression that this is a menacing, strange place. The houses are wretched; the sun, when it actually comes out, is malevolent. The writer of detective novels is spooked. He mentions his fear of ‘not waking again’, of feeling as though he is trapped inside an ‘endless, meaningless dream.’ Later, there is the repeated red symbolism, which of course reminds one of blood, but most eerie and unsettling is the role of the hedgehog giant, whose significance will become clear upon reading the book.
“You’re choosing madness as a method, and it takes courage to do that, no question; extreme positions impress people generally these days; but if this method does not lead to its goal, I’m afraid that in the end, all you’ll be left with is the madness.”
The first glimpse one has of Matthäi is as an ‘old man on a stone bench.’ He is ‘unshaven, unwashed’; his clothes are ‘smeared and stained; his eyes are ‘staring, stupefied’; and there is a strong smell of absinthe. His current unfortunate state means that one is eager to find out how a former police officer came to be this way, especially when it is told that he was once a ‘most capable man’, even a ‘genius.’ The crime at the centre of the book is the murder of a child, a girl, perhaps the most emotive kind of crime, and, in the early stages of the investigation, the impression that one gets of Matthäi is of someone who is strong and dispassionate. For example, he is the only one present when the body is found who is able to look directly at the corpse; and the only one willing to shoulder the burden of informing the parents [during which he makes the pledge of the title]. Indeed, in one of my favourite lines, he says to a doctor that he didn’t want to suffer with the world, he wanted to be superior to it.
However, none of this lends any weight to the chief’s description of Matthäi as a genius. The earliest indication of his special ability is when he offers to release the primary suspect to a crowd who have gathered in order to seek vengeance. He says he will turn the man over to them if they can guarantee justice, then proceeds to convince them that this would be impossible, because they cannot prove his guilt. It is a daring move, and evidence not only of his talent, but his arrogance too. Matthäi believes that he can read people, and that reason, his reason, will triumph over disorder. One sees further evidence of this in his unwillingness to accept that the primary suspect is actually guilty, despite him having motive, opportunity, a previous conviction, and the girl’s blood on his clothing. On one level it seems like a kind of a superiority complex, such as when I was at University and would argue the most extreme positions, because I felt as though I could do so better, more logically and consistently, than anyone else could argue their more mainstream opinions.
As a study of arrogance, The Pledge would be fine, but not quite the masterpiece that it is. What elevates it even further is that one can also interpret Matthäi’s stance as a great, obsessive, and ultimately insane, dedication to his work and, more importantly, to the truth [as he sees it]. The easiest thing would be, of course, to be satisfied with the most probable culprit and close the case. Certainly, the chief, the townsfolk, and his colleagues, are happy to do so. For Matthäi personally, who has landed a excellent job opportunity in Jordan, and is due to leave the country imminently, it is the best, the most sensible thing to do. However, he refuses to, or he can’t, and his behaviour becomes increasingly irrational, his methods and theories more monstrous, as he vows to catch the real perpetrator of the crime. As he pieces together his case, everything that he argues is plausible, but the point made by Dürrenmatt is that logic is so powerful that one can create, and justify, appalling narratives, that in a world of chaos one can find links between an infinite number of unrelated, insignificant things, and thereby imbue them with false significance. It is to his immense credit as an author that he has one rooting for his madman, has one believing in him, even when he ruthlessly uses a small child as bait in order to catch a killer who may not even exist.
Now listen to me: I’m not really into sci-fi; never been a big fan, me. Yeah, I read some Lem, back aways, but that was different, see. I was never crazies for spaceships and green fellas, not even as a little un. Not that I’m close-minded, me. No, not this guy. Just knows what I likes, don’t I? But then last week I was strugglin’ worse than a dog with a cone on its head tryin’ to lick its own balls. Every book I picked up made me nervous-like and weary as all hell. I said to myself: you can’t do it, man. Can’t read another one of those books, not you. All the things I usually enjoy seemed too serious, too uncomfortable. I needed somethin’ else, you dig me? I needed another kind of book, otherwise I’d’ve jacked it all in. And then what else would I do? Learn French? I needed a breather, is all. Spaceships and green fellas.
So, me I picks up this sci-fi book from the fifties called The Stars My Destination. Guy called Alfred Bester, he wrote it. I’m no expert with this particular type a thing, but I likes to think myself knowledgeable-like, and yet I never heard of him. So then a course I wasn’t expectin’ much, except maybe a lark, is all. A breather, see. But when I read the first page I was gobsmacked. It starts: ‘he was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead.’ And I thinks to myself: By God, that’s bloody good, that is. That reads like serious writin’, does that. I carry on, and it carry on: ‘he was delirious and rotting, but occasionally his primitive mind emerged from the burning nightmare of survival into something resembling sanity.’ And at this point I checks the front of the book because I wants to make sure I’m not bein’ duped, and it says, clear as a bell, The Stars My Destination.
“This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living and hard dying… but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice… but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks… but nobody loved it.”
I shouldn’t’ve started with praisin’ the writing. That’s not how this reviewin’ lark is done, a course. But I’m just a gutter mouth, an uneducated heel; I’m not trained for this sort a thing, me. I says with my gutter tongue whatever comes down from my gutter mind first, and that was it, see. So anyways turns out Bester could write like a motherfucker, is all; and I was primed and hot for his book pretty quick out the traps. Gully Foyle’s who I should a started with, but it’s too late now. Gully’s the dying man who’s not yet dead. That tells you somethin’. Not dead. Things are bad and yet he’s survivin’. He’s a strong man, see. Plucky and durable. But that’s not all. It’s emphasised that he’s rough and brutish; a common man, it’s said, but he ain’t so common, you’ll see. A big dumb ox, Jiz calls him. A murderer, a rapist, you’ll see. Gully don’t play square.
Quick out the traps, the big dumb ox came a favourite of mine. Not just in this book, in all books. He’s dying on a ship called Nomad, and other ship called Vorga passes him by. Leaves him to die filthy, see. Gully wants revenge on Vorga. Filthy revenge is his motivation; it opens the door. Never come across such a single-minded character, me. There’s nothin’ he won’t do, for Vorga; there’s nothin’ inside ‘but hatred and revenge.’ And the big dumb book is really interestin’ in this way, because this monomania of Gully’s pushes him to extraordinary lengths and has him doin’ extraordinary things. This passion for revenge spurs him to escape the Nomad, for a start. His obsession makes him clever, resourceful, brave. He breaks out of Gouffre Martel too, and ain’t nobody ever done that before. But also it’s illogical, his quest, his mindset, as all monomania, all desire for revenge, is. Why punish Vorga, Gully? Why not be happy to be alive and free a the Nomad, son? It takes over his life; it ruins his life, see.
Everywhere that Gully goes, mayhem and suffering comes doggin’ on his heels. He’s a walking cancer, it’s said. Revenge is destructive and filthy. Rottin’ the big dumb ox and anyone else around. And what happens when Vorga’s gone? What then, boy? Thing about monomania is, there’s no after, see. Ain’t nobody thinks a that when they in it. But anyways Gully’s ‘inspired to greatness by Vorga.’ Brutish greatness, sure; and as a readin’ experience that’s all big dumb fun, is all. But that’s not all, see. When the ox meets Jiz, Jizbella, she says to ‘punish the brain not the ship.’ She means that Gully’s been wrong-minded about the Vorga business, like a man who curses the sky when a bird shits on his head. Because he’s primitive, see. Punish the brain, the people on board, those who gave the order to pass. This is the beginnin’ of his education, the crucial first step towards logic, and reasoning and enlightenment, rather than just blind fury.
Education is key, folks. The common man, the big dumb ox don’t have to ever always remain thus. He can be lifted up, borne aloft on knowledge and reasoning and logic. Gully educates himself for Vorga, sure, but he educates himself nevertheless, see. He betters himself, for Vorga. He learns to speak not in the gutter tongue, for example, so that he can ilfultrate high society, is all. But this learning, this knowledge, makes him a better man in the end. I’m not explainin’ this right, a course, because I’m just a heel, me. But I hope you get me just a little bit. The juantes, the telepathy, the other worlds, the green fellas and spaceships, that’s all dandy, see, big dumb fun for the big dumb ox in all a us. But there’s more to this, is all. The Stars My Destination asks a question a you: what makes life worthwhile? A goal? An obsession? Not always for Vorga, no, but power, money, and all that jazz, too? And what about the rest a you, without that goal or that obsession. What do you do? Sittin’ round in your pants stuffin’ your ox face, watchin’ bigger ox on tv jest for your entertainment, while the obsessed obsess to keep you dumb. This is a book about what it is to live, you. All a you. Every you.
A friend suggested to me the other day that I might be suffering from some form of PTSD. I actively avoid the tv news and newspapers. I’m reticent to open letters. I flinch when someone knocks at the door. I came to believe, an early age, that the world is a grotesque place, and my behaviour, she said, is that of someone who does not wish to have his judgement backed up with further evidence. I withdraw into books, she said, because I’m wary of what exists outside of them. I withdraw into books that, in most cases, contain fictional worlds far removed from the grotesque one in which I live. Indeed, I once abandoned Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird after reading only a few pages. I was unwilling to take the weight of the child’s suffering upon my shoulders.
“Had it been possible for me to fix the plane permanently in the sky, to defy the winds and clouds and all the forces pushing it upward and pulling it earthward, I would have willingly done so. I would have stayed in my seat with my eyes closed, all strength and passion gone, my mind as quiescent as a coat rack under a forgotten hat, and I would have remained there, timeless, unmeasured, unjudged, bothering no one, suspended forever between my past and my future.”
I do not know, therefore, what compelled me to pick up Steps – which is often described as disturbing and brutal – by the same author. It wasn’t, as I know it is for some, the recommendation of David Foster Wallace, whose work I have only a begrudging admiration for. Perhaps it was the comparisons to Kafka and Celine, two writers I count amongst my favourites, even though these kind of comparisons are often wide of the mark. Certainly, I did not see much of either in Steps, but there is a compellingly odd, almost weightless atmosphere, which reminded me not of Kafka but Ice by Anna Kavan. As with that book, there is a lack of basic, concrete information. Everything is vague. No character is named. At most they are given a title, such as the ski instructor. Places are not identified either, except in terms like ‘the island’ or ‘the village.’ The settings could be anywhere, at any time. The only real reference points are mentions of ‘the war’ and concentration camps.
What this creates is a sense of unreality, and, consequently, a feeling that anything is possible. And when it does occur, this anything is, as promised, almost without exception violent and/or unpleasant. There is, for example, one scene, or entry, in which a ‘demented’ woman is found by the narrator in a cage in a barn in a village. She had been, it is told, repeatedly raped. In another, a man feeds bread with broken glass in it to children. Often the violence is random, almost motiveless, and sadistic. A nightwatchman is killed with a glass bottle. A army sniper takes out unarmed passersby. The violence is not, however, disturbing, not even for someone who is as sensitive to it as I am, precisely because it takes place in a world that is not, except in superficial ways, recognisably ours; it is Kosinski’s own dream-like alternate reality. It also helps, in this regard, that his style is not voyeuristic or pornographic. He does not linger over the particulars, so that, for example, one does not witness the witless woman’s rapes.
As one or two of the previous examples suggest sex plays a significant role in a number of the entries. Even the first, in which there is no sexual activity at all, but in which the narrator convinces a young girl to run away with him by flashing his credit cards, sex could be said to be the motivating factor. Indeed, this entry introduces one of the book’s primary preoccupations, which is the human predatory, often sexually predatory, instinct. In one piece, the narrator is called a ‘hyena’ for preying on a dying woman in order to gratify himself; in another he is himself preyed upon by two overweight women, when he finds himself trapped on an island without money or food or any means of escape; in yet another the narrator cold-heartedly hopes a gang-rape victim will recover soon so that they can begin to ‘make love’ again, while reminding himself that he would have to be gentle [a thought he finds ‘unwelcome.’]
What is interesting about the book, however, is that, although women are sometimes abused – the worst being the bestiality incident – they are, on numerous occasions, shown to be both strong and independent. When the narrator is photographing patients within a mental institution, a women working there is said to be able to ‘endure for years an environment I found unbearable even for a few days.’ Moreover, the women are most often less emotionally needy, more mature in their outlook than the men in the book. One, who is unfaithful, states that ‘intercourse is not a commitment unless it stems from a particular emotion and a certain frame of mind.’ Another is said to refuse to have a steady companion. Of course, this could be seen as some sort of literary wish fulfilment on the part of the author, but it did not strike me that way. One of my favourite passages in the book is when a woman is describing the unique appeal of oral sex, and her power over the man is emphasised:
“It’s a weird sensation having it in one’s mouth. It’s as if the entire body of the man, everything, had suddenly shrunk into this one thing. And then it grows and fills the mouth. It becomes forceful, but at the same time remains frail and vulnerable. It could choke me — or I might bite it off. And as it grows, it is I who give it life; my breathing sustains it, and it uncoils like an enormous tongue.”
I mentioned the war previously, but Steps is not a war novel. In fact, most do not call it a novel at all, but, rather, a collection of short stories. However, I am reticent to describe it as such myself, and I certainly did not read it as a number of standalone pieces put together in one volume. There is, admittedly, limited continuity or consistency. At times the narrator is a soldier, at others he is a vagrant, or an archeologist assistant, and yet I think Steps works as a whole in more significant ways than the occupation of the person relating the action. I return again to atmosphere of unreality that dominates the book. If our ideas about what is possible are suspended, then it is ok for a narrator to take on multiple, conflicting, roles, especially when, in terms of style and tone, it seems clear that it is the same man narrating each entry, much like how the girl in Ice can die multiple times and still be alive on the following page.
It had been fifteen minutes since I ordered the taxi. According to the tracker on my phone it had spent that time down a dead-end street, turning slowly in circles. I considered cancelling, but with the instinctive human yearning for a reasonable explanation I convinced myself that my phone was faulty, that I was overreacting, that the fear I felt was unwarranted. When eventually the car pulled up I got in and asked the driver if he had been having mechanical problems. He told that he had been stuck at traffic lights. The lie unnerved me further. When the vehicle moved, it did so at great speed. I felt for my seatbelt, pulled it across my chest. It would not click into place. It was obstructed by something. ‘It doesn’t work,’ the driver said. I asked him to stop the car. He seemed agitated. ‘It’s fine,’ he said. ‘Stay there.’
It crossed my mind at this point that he meant me harm, and, further, that in harmful situations the victim usually waits for the terrible moment, the blow, before reacting. I was ready to act, to preempt. The driver offered me the backseat, then changed his mind. ‘Stay there, it’s fine,’ he repeated. We sped on. I wondered, with that futile human need for clarification, why he was so insistent on me being in the front of the car. A robbery? A sexual assault? I contemplated jumping, but, in compromise with myself, persuaded him to let me in the back instead. It’s either that or I get out, I stated firmly. What an absurd agreement. A few moments later we pulled up at some traffic lights. ‘My eyes,’ he said. ‘They feel itchy, I can’t see.’ He wants me to get in the front again, I thought. To check his eyes. I didn’t. I asked to be let out, and to my surprise he stopped the car.
I’ve told this story numerous times. Most think that it was nothing, that the danger was a figment of my imagination, that it was no more than dust dirtying the mirror of my mind. Sometimes I think so too. Is it not I who am mad, and not the world? I’ve asked myself that question before. Isn’t it possible, likely even, that I am viewing the world through the prism of my own insanity, and that this is the reason why everything I experience seems so peculiar, offbeat, and frightening? Is that the reasonable explanation for which I yearn? There are no demons in dark corners, they are all in my head. Yes, that is certainly a more straightforward way of looking at things. There was no maniacal taxi driver intent on hurting me, simply a taxi driver who was bad at his job; there are no trapdoors, simply doors upon which my diseased mind has imposed a sinister significance.
The Ship was written by Hans Henny Jahnn and published in 1949. Information about the author is scarce, but the German was, I’ve read, the son of a ship’s carpenter and the grandson of a builder of ships. This, and the title of course, might lead one to expect from his work something like an ode to sailing and the sea, or even the less thrilling chapters in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, but the reality is far removed from that. The ship itself, which at the beginning of the novel is moored, and doesn’t give hint of being ready to go anywhere, is described as being of ‘unparalleled artistry.’ It was, we’re told, ‘built by a genius.’ The red sails, however, are troubling. More so is that fact of it being stationary, and of it being utilised as something of a party boat; for a ship that doesn’t drive through the water is a ‘useless enterprise,’ is, indeed, ‘an offence to society.’
These are early examples of a strangeness and unease that intensifies as the novel progresses. Some of this is due to the construction of the ship itself. The vessel is, it is revealed, equipped with microphones that allow the supercargo, a government official, to listen in to all conversations. This man is also in contact, in a way that isn’t particularly clear, with another ship that is sailing close behind and which is ready to move in on his say. Even more alarming is that the original ship appears to have secret walls and certain doors can be opened from outside even when locked. All of which gives the impression that the passengers are trapped in what is effectively a surrealist painting or on a floating fairground house of horrors. These people are further spooked by the uncertainties regarding the mission and the cargo. In short, none of them know where they are going, or why, or what is being carried.
In this way, The Ship is a a kind of mystery thriller, albeit a slow-paced one, especially when one factors in the disappearance of a young woman, and her possible murder. Indeed, it has much in common with the ‘locked room’ subgenre, as there are witnesses that see her enter the supercargo’s cabin, but none that see her leave; and yet there is no evidence of foul play when the room is searched. There is not, however, a highly trained detective on hand to unravel the mystery, only the passengers, the greater number of whom – the regular crew – are rapidly losing their minds. Of the others on board, there are three who are of particular interest. There is a captain, who is affable and competent, as long as he is dealing only with traditional captain’s business, but who would, if he were allowed, turn a blind eye to anything he couldn’t easily explain. Secondly, there is the aforementioned supercargo, who seems initially set up to be the villain. He is the only one with knowledge of the cargo and destination of the ship, and he is described as ‘devious’, ‘repulsive’, and ‘exceptional.’ Most telling, however, is his nickname as the ‘grey man’, for his character is vague, changeable. One is never sure what to make of him. Is he victim, loser, pawn or puppet-master?
The third character of note is Gustave, the missing young woman’s lover. He is the person on board who goes through the most significant changes. In the beginning, he stows away on the ship, and one can see in this a shedding of his previous identity, or a means of mentally and emotionally reinventing himself. Indeed, his relationship with Ellena, which had been so solid, falters; he ignores her, first for his new-found love of adventure and comradeship with the crew, and then in his obsession with understanding and explaining the odd nature of, and happenings on board, the ship. Yet far from arriving at any form of enlightenment, he becomes increasingly ‘befuddled.’ It is through Gustave in particular, but also notable members of the crew, that Jahnn illustrates his principle theme.
When faced with the strange or confusing, man will endeavour to look for a reasonable or logical explanation, almost as a kind of comfort blanket. However, it can happen that in searching for a simple, rational explanation one actually creates lavish fantasies, and these, in turn, can push one towards insanity. Moreover, is it also the case that a mind already in the grip of madness, when searching for the rational, will in fact create something monstrous, yet still plausible. Take, for example, the construction of the ship. Gustave refuses to accept, or may not even acknowledge the possibility, that its design is eccentric, but harmless. He sees something sinister in it, a motive. Likewise, the cargo could be anything. It is a secret, yes, but that does not mean that it is something horrifying or supernatural. Perhaps it is guns. Drugs. Or something even more banal. Yet Gustave and the crew concoct ever wilder theories, culminating in a belief that in each coffin-shaped box lies a woman, dead or alive.