Building a World Not Worth Living In

Readers interested in the business of fictional “world-building” can learn many lessons from the novels of Kevin P. Keating, not least the extent to which fictional worlds are conditioned by the aesthetic choices undergirding the prose on the page. For many world-building writers, particularly those working in genres like fantasy and science fiction, the elaborate envisioning of the world, and the detailed depiction of the ways of that world, are priorities far more pressing than the careful consideration of diction and syntax and the transmutation of the world into words. But this is clearly, unambiguously not the case for Keating, even though his body of work could be construed as a creature of the borderlands between fantasy, horror, and character comedy. In a Booklist review of his début novel, The Natural Order of Things, his prose is described as “serpentine and sinewy and all-around gorgeous.” That’s not even the half of it, and the prose in Natural Order is bested by that of its recent pseudo-sequel, The Captive Condition. Throughout these two disturbing but hilarious novels, Keating displays a remarkable command of a broad vocabulary and an affinity for the subtleties of prosody, while also choosing words that exploit both of those gifts and finding ways to spool those words around syntactic structures whose complexity serves his sickening sense of humour. What his prose ends up constructing is a world in which, as a matter of course, terrible people do terrible things to themselves and to one another, but also a world in which those people are rendered in prose that makes them something distinctly other, distinctly stranger, than avatars of the merely terrible.

Consider, for instance, this passage from The Natural Order of Things, which describes an encounter between a high school football coach named Kaliher, recently separated from his wife, and his loathsome landlady Mrs. O’Neill. As the owner and manager of a seedy apartment block populated by “the downtrodden, ruined, addicted, and insane,” O’Neill “actively seeks out male renters” so that she can demand sexual intercourse in the event of a shortfall in rent, and Kaliher, as usual, has not been able to pay up. O’Neill, we are told, leans against the entrance to his apartment with “a long pillar of cigarette ash wobbling between her lizard lips” and “shambles” inside, “heavy and compact as a bison,” to claim what she believes she is owed. Other writers might shy away from pursuing the implications of the grotesque terms applied to Mrs. O’Neill, the investiture of both reptilian and hulkingly mammalian properties that seem at first to be contradictory, but Keating doubles down with an outpouring that extends and embellishes them. “No matter how many times [Kaliher] submits to this monthly ritual,” Keating writes,

he is shocked by the vulgarity of Mrs. O’Neill’s bedroom talk and the rough manner in which she shoves his face into the swampy valley between her sloping breasts, down to the impressive rolls of fat that have congealed around her navel, across the rugged terrain of her thorny snatch, ever lower, lower, all the while rasping her sinister commands with pitiless glee. … Taking direction like a trained seal [when she orders him to lick her feet], he sweeps his tongue over the tough meat of the sole, up and down the swollen arch, heel to toe, heel to toe [and then, u]sing the advantage of her weight, she pins him to the mattress, parts her legs and slowly envelopes him in her clammy flesh.

Thirty minutes later, the tentacled creature squirts her ink over his abdomen, and the unspeakable ordeal comes to an end.

O’Neill, then, is reptilian and mammalian as well as amphibian (“swampy”) and somehow vegetative (“thorny”) and even oceanic (“clammy” and “tentacled”) and yet Keating still doesn’t stop there. After Mrs. O’Neill belittles Kaliher for prostituting himself once again,

she stands up, pulls the bathrobe around her thick torso, and plunges into a pool of black shadow, Grendel’s mother, glutted on warrior blood, diving into the heaving depths of her sinister fen somewhere in the misty moorlands. Kaliher, marvelling at the terrible strength of this tusked and taloned tarn-hag, wonders if she ever had children of her own, stillborn things sent straight to Limbo.

And there’s plenty more where that came from. Taking its cue from the likes of Winesburg, Ohio, Keating’s début offers less a conventionally linear narrative than an anthology of interwoven stories that drift amongst the depraved denizens of a decaying Midwestern town dominated by the tall Gothic tower of a morally bankrupt Jesuit school. Flocks of grackles and roaming packs of dogs recur throughout the stories, as do particular Jesuit priests, several filthy prostitutes, and a sinister cab driver whose teeth have rotted away into “unsightly gray stumps.” Events recur as well, and in fact are repeated, as successive stories establish chronologies that parallel or intersect with those of earlier stories by depicting action that has already been depicted elsewhere. Throughout it all, Keating fixes his narratorial gaze on the most corrupt, most deviant, most perverted behaviours of the Jesuit school’s staff and students, but he does so in a way that intensifies the immorality to such a cartoonish extent that, by design, it loses its shocking edge.

In one chapter, a man receives a blowjob from his lover while gazing out the window at a block of apartments in which a neighbour’s mischievous dog, Gonzago, sits at his own window and watches the man in the throes of his pleasure. The woman on her knees “slurps, gags, makes funny quacking sounds,” Keating writes, “but just as [the man’s] eyelids start to flutter, he happens to glance out the window and sees the dog imitating him, prancing around on its hind legs like some bizarre animal act at a roadside carnival. Perhaps sensing another opportunity to make mischief, Gonzago begins to howl with maniacal laughter, a single extended note that starts as a banshee’s moan and ends as a deafening siren that oscillates with horrific madhouse harmonics” — and that howl causes the blowjob to climax in a very particular sort of pain. Another dog in another chapter is hit by a car and presumed dead by the driver, a man named Claude, until the owner picks up his injured pet and confronts the runaway assailant. “The thing is still alive,” Claude realises, “its head crushed like a rotten apple, its snout crusted over with blood, its reeking organs and entrails bubbling and foaming from the angry wound on its enormous, heaving belly. Claude stares, can’t help but stare, and when the thing lifts an accusatory paw toward him, he stumbles backward and begins to cough on the fumes spewing from the tailpipe.” There’s also a paedophilic teacher who sleeps with the school’s star quarterback, and a psychopathic student who tortures a priest on his deathbed, and of course there’s the wretched, decrepit Father Loomis himself — a monster “[c]oncealed under a thin sheet like a circus freak behind the curtain of an arched proscenium,” a “gibbering, drooling, cadaverous creature” whose “desiccated flesh [is] pale blue, vaguely aquatic, almost translucent” and who “squirms in a hospital bed and claws at the air with nails so jagged and yellow that they seem capable of infecting anyone foolish enough to get too close.”

In The Captive Condition, Keating takes as his narrator a prominent character from The Natural Order of Things but displaces him and distances him from the location of the earlier novel. Edmund Campion moves away from the Jesuit school to start afresh on the campus of Wakefield College in the small town of Normandy Falls. The institution noticeably shares a name with the protagonist of one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales and, at Wakefield, Campion finds himself in a Midwestern dump concealing the sort of ancestral horrors and beset by the sort of dark arts practitioners to be found in Hawthorne’s more gothic stories and in those of his successors. Featuring ghosts, mutants, monsters, rumours of werewolves, live burials, children conceived for ritual purposes, creepy twins, and plenty more surreptitious sexual deviance, debauchery, and depravity, The Captive Condition hybridises Blue Velvet and the Cthulhu mythos and sets it all on the stage of a college campus. That this is a novel about monsters is no mistake and no metaphorical way of speaking of its treatment of more worldly things. In one scene, for instance, Campion stumbles upon a concealed, shadowy cavern in which “a row of storage shelves” rises “from floor to ceiling” and holds “hundreds of glass jars, some the size of growlers, their contents sealed tight with zinc canning lids” like “a squirming horde of mutant djinns desperate to explode from their magic lamps.” These “mutant djinns” are “small, fetal, fish-eyed things,” Keating writes,

bloated masses of flesh incubating outside their mother’s womb, insensate creatures neither terrestrial nor aquatic caught in the collective grip of a curious dream, their eyes twitching, their forked and tufted tails swaying in a cloudy fluid that glowed goblin green. … I understood now that Normandy Falls contained a secret, a colossal creeping sentient madness hibernating beneath the fulgurite-pitted earth. For the better part of a century, the hereditary horrors of the Wakefield clan had been anticipating the arrival of a weary traveller who would set them free so they might lurk among the roadless reaches of swamp and forest and swim once again in the river. Because given enough time something always manages to escape from the laboratory and foul the water.

That’s not the first time readers encounter such creatures. We have already been introduced, memorably, to a woman who creates metallic representations of similarly fishlike beings, “cruelly shaped things that may have washed up in the fecal mire and interstitial wastes along the river, web-footed, membranous monsters of inconceivable ugliness… [that] floated freely and without consequence in the smoky air [and] gonged weirdly and gave off a gangrenous and chlorotic glare.” Nor is it the last time that such precise and vivid language is marshalled in order to evoke a scene of such unremitting horror. Later, for instance, a crowded restaurant consumed by fire becomes “an immense sacrificial pyre, a brazier of people bursting into flames, their faces peeling like curled sheets of bark from beechwood trees after a powerful windstorm,” and as everyone’s hair catches alight, all of them start insensibly running into each other except for one old woman who, we are told, “tore a blazing white wig from her head and hurled it to the floor, where it burned like a hairball coughed up by a hacking dragon.” And the grotesquerie of Keating’s characters extends beyond mere physical description in a way that taints their actions in the descriptive language applied to them. Writing of Xavier D’Avignon, a small-town chef with pretensions of becoming a master of fine dining, Keating notes that “[w]hen it came to the preparation and presentation of haute cuisine… [he] felt an intellectual, spiritual, and even sexual empowerment that far surpassed anything he’d ever experienced, and he often boasted that his perfectly executed recipes were not only manna from heaven but also potent aphrodisiacs raining down from the sky like Cupid’s arrows.” Later, when this same man is looked upon by another who suspects that the chef is cuckolding him, the second man sees him as a “proud and swaggering ‘stunt cock’ who night after night climbed on top of his wife and” — in a turn of phrase equal parts apt and absurd — “emptied himself into her like rancid bouillabaisse from an overturned creamer.”

It’s easy to oversell a writer with a claim that his or her work is “not for the faint of heart.” It’s easy to all but openly dare a reader to pick up the work if for no other reason than to prove that he or she is not ruled by overly delicate sensibilities. In Keating’s case, though, the phrase is apt because a number of readers are likely to find the work off-putting for any number of reasons. One reason is simply that Mrs. O’Neill’s melodramatic grotesquerie is typical of Keating’s world, far from an exception to the rule. More significantly, though, his narratives are unresolved and inconsequential even when they’re not outright recursive and cyclical, and his style is marked by a tendency towards excess in almost every sentence, particularly in his intensifiers and the caricatured quality of the imagery with which he forges similes and metaphors. If his work is not for the faint of heart, then, that is only partly because his world is distinctly unappealing, utterly without any humanist concerns for the people living in it, and more so because readers who are interested only in the ways of his world are unlikely to see an appeal in the words he deploys to construct it. His absurd diction and loopy syntax not only obstruct our sympathy for those who suffer in his world and refuse to redeem those who perpetuate suffering, but they in fact gloss the world in a such way as to take sympathy and redemption entirely out of the question — to place them utterly beside the point. To achieve an effect such as that is both the challenge and the privilege of world-building in prose, and it is a testament to his prose, above all, that Keating is able to pull it off.

Variations On a Single Tone

Picture this. You’re out on a date at a fancy restaurant when the waiter brings you the soup you ordered along with a plateful of hair. The restaurant is otherwise “nice” and tonight’s date is “the first [one] in months” and, to judge from the way your partner looks down at the plate of hair and then looks expectantly at you, you can’t be sure if this particular dish has been ordered by mistake or if your partner ordered it for you while you were in the bathroom. You don’t want to screw this up. You need to show manners and social graces. If you find yourself in this scenario, what are you supposed to do? And if you’re a writer for whom this scenario sets up a short story, how do you allow your protagonist to react to it?

You might take the realist’s approach to that question and have your protagonist make an issue of the horror, the repulsion, and not least the indignity of being served a plateful of hair. You might take the fabulist’s approach, having your protagonist consume it delicately and delightedly and without further comment from anyone else in a world in which it is widely known that a plateful of hair makes an exquisite meal. Or you might take the approach of Amelia Gray, which basically involves splitting the difference between those two possibilities. “Do try something,” the inwardly horrified but outwardly courteous protagonist says to her partner in ‘Dinner,’ the opening story in Gray’s collection Museum of the Weird. Implicitly inviting the gentleman to try the hair before she tries it herself, she manages simultaneously to register her disgust at the unusual meal she has been served and to show the social graces so crucial to the success of the date. Unfortunately, though, the gentleman, Dave, declines the woman’s seemingly generous offer:

Dave shook his head. He was still smiling, but his gaze had dropped to her lips, meaning either that he wanted to kiss her — she had read about this technique in magazines — or that he wanted her to take a healthy chunk of hair with her fork and choke it down with a swallow of red wine, forcing the clogged mass down her throat like an obstruction through the pipes of a bathtub.

What exactly does Dave want her to do? How exactly is she supposed to behave in the scenario she faces? The answer to such a question doesn’t really matter. The sheer mystery undergirding the question itself, a mystery unresolved and in fact spun out into an extended period of irresolution, is what makes ‘Dinner’ a typical Amelia Gray short story. It’s a question that similarly plagues the incredulous narrator of ‘Babies’ when she wakes one morning “to discover I had given birth overnight,” as well as dogging the perturbed and exhausted townsfolk of ‘Vultures,’ who struggle to make accommodations for the violent and predatory carrion birds that have taken up residence in their streets. And it’s there, too, in ‘Fish,’ which focuses on the awkward social standing of two men, Dale and Howard, who have decided to marry inanimate objects and who expect the people around them to view their marriages as not only legitimate but also unremarkable. “When anyone asked Dale if he had dated actual women before making the decision to marry a paring knife,” Gray writes, “he would look at that person with such incredulity that the stranger would feel as if they had been rude to inquire,” while Howard, who is a little more accommodating, admits that even though “a bag of frozen tilapia was different in many ways from a woman… in many ways it was the same.” Time and again in Gray’s short stories, characters either encounter or give rise to some monumental absurdity, some rupture in the logical ways of the world, and yet, while they do not follow the fabulist’s route and treat the absurd as anything but, they also don’t quite follow the realists in making an issue of it. They are realists in most respects but for their reticence to permit themselves an authentic reaction to absurdity, their insistence on facing the absurd with composure and decorum.

Taking a bird’s eye view of Gray’s body of work, one might assume that she churns out the sort of hip, disaffected, droll, vaguely snarky and often precious stories that tend to populate venues like McSweeney’s and Vice, both of which have published her. In fact, though, she doesn’t do this at all. Throughout Museum of the Weird as well as her first story collection, AM/PM, and her ingenious novel Threats, Gray has carved out a space all her own — concocting a tone all her own and steadily perfecting her recipe — and the trajectory she has followed in the course of doing this has reached a sort of apotheosis in her latest collection, Gutshot. More so than ever before, there’s something unsettling and beguiling to the cumulative effect of watching one character after another acknowledge absurdity in a way that is both laconic and stoic, and yet it’s less off-putting than hypnotically engaging. The result of the whole is an experience of uncanniness without the sense of spooky disquiet: a little like what you might get from watching a simulacrum of human interactions created by extraterrestrials, or from watching primates at play in a zoo and recognising some ancestral kinship in their more human mannerisms.

The opening story of Gutshot, for example, focuses on the relationship between a man and a woman perfectly suited to one another until, halfway through a sentence, they begin to lose their memories of their life together. Rather than asking what might be happening to their memories, despite their awareness of a profound loss, they simply ask questions of the world around them, questions intended to help them find their way back to themselves, so that the simple act of asking becomes the new common denominator of their life together. ‘The Lark’ is a similarly bizarre yet heartfelt story focusing on a man who cannot speak more than a few words without vomiting into a bucket, but it is less about his suffering than about the chance encounter that brings him true love in spite of his condition. ‘The Labyrinth’ offers a sketch of a father who succeeds in replacing the children’s maze at his daughter’s birthday party with the mythical structure patrolled by the Minotaur, but it is less about the motives that lead him to do that, or the means by which he does it, than about the pride he feels for having done it and his yearning to share his pride with other parents. And in ‘Date Night,’ whose setup has echoes of ‘Dinner,’ a couple are out on a date at a fancy restaurant when the man excuses himself from the table and the woman, left alone, accidentally begins to disassemble her body. She “scratches her forearm a little too hard and a slice of skin peels up with her fingernail,” and with this she sparks a craze of deliberate, artful bodily decomposition that spreads to her fellow diners:

A woman screams until someone slips a dessert spoon under a muscle in her neck and flings her larynx to the floor, at which point the woman grasps both breasts, rips them from her body, and applies them to her throat. … Flesh is siphoned into a bowl and poured without discrimination into a freestanding grandfather clock that is set on fire and rolled into the street.

Those words, together with the title of the collection, suggest a preoccupation with viscera that extends throughout Gutshot and gives it a vividness and a force that make it altogether more powerful than AM/PM and Museum of the Weird. So too does the general compression of the stories, with only the true rarities running to more than three pages in length, and so does a modification of tempo that generates a creeping insidiousness, a slow burn rather than a sudden shock, which the short and punchy title otherwise conceals. Entry for entry, story for story, Gutshot is more focused than Gray’s previous collections, more confident and reportorial in its style, more dedicated to perfecting the qualities of the typical Gray short story, and more powerful in its protracted explorations of bemusing responses to outlandish events. It is also, on the whole, the work of an author more secure in her aims and more assured of her own abilities, particularly as she manages to achieve her preferred effects through a number of structurally experimental stories. ‘Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover’ is exactly what it sounds like, a woman’s list of strategies for carving up, cooking, and consuming her partner, one body part at a time while he is still alive, implicitly to achieve a more thorough, more sensual appreciation of his corporeality. ‘The Swan as Metaphor for Love’ begins as an earnest essay on the titular subject before it takes an abrupt self-reflexive turn and points out the absurdity of swans, the absurdity of love, the absurdity of looking for compatibility between the two, and the absurdity of continuing any discussion of it. In the title story, a dying man who repeatedly laments that he has been “gutshot” is visited by Jesus, who attempts to comfort him in his final moments by calling to his attention to assorted elements of his surroundings that become imbued with a poetic elegance simply by virtue of context, and, in ‘Viscera,’ Gray pieces together a visceral description of the material history of the page on which the story is printed, rendering the page itself an object of both disgust and wonder.

It would be easy for a writer working with this sort of subject matter to submit to temptation and allow her work to slip into one of the tones favoured by other writers mining similar territory. It would be easy for a writer of Gray’s calibre to mimic the self-deprecating irony of Dave Eggers, the overweening whimsy of Karen Russell, or the increasingly contrived yuk-yuks of George Saunders. That Gray doesn’t submit to temptation is impressive enough, but more impressive is that she has charted a fresh, distinct, and sharply defined alternative path across such well-trodden terrain. Her tone — if that’s even the right word for the quality of her stories that makes them identifiably hers — comes from the sense that she is simultaneously looking askance at her awkward characters and yet looking at them in a resolutely non-judgmental way. While this tone suffuses all of the stories in Gutshot, each one advances an ever-so-slight variation on it and allows Gray to replace the irony and whimsy and yuk-yuks she has rejected with something altogether rarer, less prefabricated, and more potent.

Halfway Between That and the Other Thing

Max Porter recently received an unusual honour when his debut novel, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, was shortlisted for both the Guardian First Book Award and the Goldsmiths Prize. The Guardian, operating in partnership with Waterstones, tends to favour middlebrow literary fiction, eloquent but structurally conventional accounts of individuals in emotional extremis. Goldsmiths, in contrast, seeks to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form” and “embodies the spirit of invention that characterises the genre at its best.” How, then, did Porter pull off the double nomination?

Despite the clear differences between the two prizes, it’s not a great surprise to see Grief Is the Thing With Feathers shortlisted for both of them. The novel explores the emotional distress of an academic whose wife has recently died, leaving him to raise their two sons by himself, and this set-up alone makes the novel pure gold for The Guardian. The twist in the tale is that the man and his boys are visited one night by a crow or a crow-like creature named Crow, a physical manifestation of their shared grief who moves into their house to guide them through the grieving process. Crow is a wild and wonderful creation: as mischievous as Loki, as brash as a barroom brawler, as self-pitying as a whipped puppy, and, on top of it all, a manifestation not only of grief but also of intertexuality. The grieving husband is a Ted Hughes scholar whose personal trauma turns his thoughts towards the intricacies of Hughes’ Crow, the poet’s exploration of his own grief after the suicide of Sylvia Plath, and so the character of Crow gives form to the animating spirit of Hughes’ book as much as he gives form to the scholar’s emotions. There is yet more intertextuality throughout — the title alludes to one of Emily Dickinson’s best-known poems — and, too, there’s a structure in which the narration jumps around between the increasingly terse man, the two boys who only ever speak of themselves as “we,” and the stream-of-consciousness ramblings of their otherworldly, inhuman companion. All of these elements, in combination, push the novel not too far beyond a scant one hundred pages with lots of white space throughout, which in turn often transmutes it into something approaching prose poetry and thus something distinctly palatable to the Goldsmiths judges.

I wish I could have shared the appreciations of both prize-giving bodies, The Guardian and Goldsmiths, but I was disappointed to find the novel with so firm a footing in each camp that it struggled to do justice to the virtues of either one. It establishes a set of broad narrative and aesthetic premises that would allow for detailed, nuanced, and complex explorations of grief as a subject in its own right and of the structural and symbolic possibilities for articulating an experience of grief, yet it doesn’t do much more than skim the surface of these premises. Often, in fact, it reads like an outline for a better novel than the one it is, a series of notes assembling a reservoir of narrative and aesthetic potential which, if exploited, would have filled many hundreds of pages — but it doesn’t dive into the depths of its potential, and it doesn’t even really consider the notion that there are any depths to what is depicted in its pages and the ways in which the depiction has been constructed. The experimentalism of the novel somehow obstructs its own access to a detailed meditation on the nature of grief, and yet, without some way of protracting the experiences of its grieving characters, the narrative doesn’t have sufficient length or scope to allow its aesthetic idiosyncrasies to develop into more than what they seem to be on first appearance. In the end, although there’s a lot to like about Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, the parts of the novel are more intriguing than the whole, since the whole doesn’t allow its parts to interact and to produce effects more manifold and stimulating than those they generate as parts. It’s a sadly wasted opportunity to do something very special — it’s a novel that could have integrated two typically antithetical ways of approaching fiction, but that settles instead for simply and fleetingly introducing them to one another.

Starvation and Starscapes

I found my way to Binary Star, the debut novel of Sarah Gerard, through the author’s recent critical work on Hilda Hilst. Publishing an essay on Hilst in the Los Angeles Review of Books and taking the lead on a roundtable discussion in Music and Literature, Gerard caught my eye as someone prepared to venture out to provocative, challenging places in the pages of her own fiction. The subject matter of Binary Star only confirmed this impression. Based closely on the author’s experiences with a severe eating disorder, the novel introduces a young bulimic woman and charts the dissolution of her disastrous romance with an abusive boyfriend. It begins with a road trip devoid of any sense of direction and destination, then it swerves into drug and alcohol addiction, sadomasochism, and the ethics of doing violence to creatures of flesh and blood. Given that its narrator wrestles painfully with bulimia, there’s a temptation to say that Gerard simply refracts these other forms of bodily harm through the mindset of the bulimic. But since the narrator devotes so much of her attention to the anarchist politics of her boyfriend and the cultural maladies that ignite his indignation, it’s more accurate to say that Gerard’s true interest is the mindset of the obsessive, broadly conceived, and that the narrator and her boyfriend are possessed of variations on this mindset.

Binary Star is in many ways admirable,” Dan Green concludes in his review of the novel, “although more in the way of a good deed performed well than as a flash of artistic brilliance.” I agree with that judgment and share the sense of disappointment it entails. The shame of it is that Gerard equips Binary Star with qualities of artistic distinction and the building blocks of something brilliant, but her stance towards her own material is finally too conservative to allow her to unleash its potential. Comprised of sharp declarative statements that cumulatively advance a rhythm of unrelenting, oppressive insistence, the novel stylistically asserts the confidence and certitude of a narrator whose disclosures repeatedly give voice to self-doubt, insecurity, and increasing desperation. And yet despite the focused concision of its every sentence, and despite the intriguing tension between the substance of those sentences and their stylistic gloss, the novel runs to an excessive length. Clocking in at 166 pages, it offers little that couldn’t have been offered in half as many.

I mean that in quite a literal sense, since Binary Star is structured in a way that leaves a good portion of the prose superfluous. Perhaps the novel’s most innovative feature is the narrator’s extensive recourse to an astronomical lexicon in an effort to articulate human interactions and experiences. As a graduate student and lecturer in the field of astronomy, the narrator repeatedly turns her gaze skyward to disclose her knowledge of celestial phenomena in a way that refers and corresponds to the turmoils of her life. She and her boyfriend correspond to a binary star system in which two stars in orbital proximity gravitate towards each other and collide with catastrophic results. She purges herself of nutrition to accentuate her beauty, corresponding herself to a nova burning brighter the closer it comes to exhausting its fuel supply — although she neglects to notice that, for human beings, starvation entails an agonising death and not a dazzling glory. In one way or another, the vocabulary of the starscape is inscribed throughout the narrator’s writing as the basis of her ability to know and express herself.

The stars in these pages therefore function as much more than simple, occasional metaphors for the narrator to elaborate on her state of mind or the state of her relationship at any given moment. She uses them to conceptualise her place in the world around her, her position in relation to others, and the general direction of the life she is leading. Ruminations on the beauty and behaviour of the stars appear on almost every page, and sometimes they even extend across several pages in succession. Indeed, altogether, they comprise perhaps one third of the novel’s total length as the narrator alternates between depicting her experiences and describing their starbound parallels. Here, however, the pattern of alternation, pursued to great lengths and adhered to inflexibly, ossifies Binary Star. Of course it is initially necessary to enable readers to become accustomed to the structure of the novel and to be guided towards understanding that, for example, the narrator’s dissection of the mechanics and movements of a binary star system is really her way of discussing the subtleties and intimacies of her relationship with her boyfriend. But because the pattern persists well beyond the point at which the narrator has established the double significance of celestial bodies, the bravery she demonstrates in her difficult choice of subject and her idiosyncratic style is not strong enough for her to fully commit to the logic of her structure.

The result is a novel that disappointingly retreats from exploiting all of its structural possibilities. Gerard invests Binary Star with the potential to become something risky and radical — a novel that focuses on a narrator whose mind, body, and lover punish her on a daily basis, but also a novel that details the narrator’s trauma solely through her discussions of phenomena occurring at a vast distance from her own life — and yet this potential remains only that, exactly that, right through to the final page. Encased within Binary Star is a novel very different to the novel it becomes, a much less conventional novel that is structured into existence by an author who does not then withdraw from convention so that this other novel may exist more fully and completely. Because Gerard holds the hands of her readers for the duration of Binary Star, because she does not set them free to inhabit its structure at length, she effectively neuters its early capacity for innovation. Binary Star is a feral novel forced into domestic behaviour, a novel rendered far less adventurous than it wants itself to be.

Murnane’s Manifesto

A Million Windows

It’s often said of Gerald Murnane that his mature period began with the publication of The Plains in 1982. What followed were four volumes filled with metafictional introspection and a sustained preoccupation with the act of writing that culminated in Emerald Blue in 1995. When Barley Patch appeared in 2009, ending a run of some fourteen years during which Murnane published no fiction at all, it swerved Murnane’s metafictional focus from the present tense to the present perfect: from the act of writing, here and now, to the fact of having written much over many years. In doing so, Barley Patch announced the arrival of Murnane’s late period, a period that continued through A History of Books in 2012 and continues now, this month, in A Million Windows. Of the three volumes that comprise this loose trilogy of self-reflective fictions, A Million Windows is the most lucidly written, the most conceptually successful, and the most emotionally invested. It is also what one reader described to me as “Murnane to the power of Murnane,” making it by far the least likely of all of Murnane’s books to appeal to readers not already familiar with him.

A Million Windows takes its title from Henry James’ declaration that “[t]he house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million,” and the image that dominates the book is “a house of two or, perhaps, three storeys” whose occupants are continually gazing out of its windows at the grasslands that surround it. Readers of Barley Patch and A History of Books will not be surprised to learn that these occupants are, once again, the “personages” and “image-persons” who Murnane’s eloquent yet formal narrator remains reluctant to identify as characters, but what is surprising here is who these people are and where they happen to come from. Although the origins of its title may lie in the work of Henry James, A Million Windows takes the image of the capacious house from an article about a Swedish film director who, “late in his career,” directed “a film set in a castle many a room of which was occupied by one or another chief character from one or another of the many films directed by the Swede in earlier years,” meaning that the occupants of the house are the chief characters and narrators of some of Murnane’s earlier publications. Most recognisable among them are the narrator of ‘Stone Quarry,’ arguably the finest of Murnane’s short fictions, as well as middle-aged or elderly versions of Clement Killeaton and Adrian Sherd — the protagonist of Murnane’s début, Tamarisk Row, published in 1974, and the protagonist of A Lifetime on Clouds, published in 1976. But while the appearances of these characters may make A Million Windows look like merely the most recent iteration of what Peter Craven calls Murnane’s “revisiting, with endless variegations and minute tonal shifts and dislocations and re-emergences of patterning, the apparent tiny variations of his obsessive compass,” Murnane incorporates them into the book in ways that have repercussions for re-readings of the books in which they first appeared.

As they congregate to debate the metaphysics of literature in much the same way that the plainsmen of The Plains collectively articulate the meaning of a barren landscape, the occupants of Murnane’s house give voice to various ways of approaching the activity of writing fiction. Their discussions invariably involve the close analysis of the most simple and most common elements of fiction — characterisation, point-of-view, dialogue, plot, theme, and so on — and they usually conclude with a consideration of the efficacy of a given element with reference to a particular work of fiction that they deem either successful or unreadable. Over time, then, they reach a sort of consensus on the essential elements of a work of fiction, the most important of which is what Murnane’s narrator calls a “narrative presence,” “the personage seemingly responsible for the existence of the text [who is also] seemingly approachable by way of the text or seemingly revealed through the text and [who] seem[s] to have written the text in order to impart what could never have been imparted by any other means than the writing of a fictional text.” Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum and the work of the Latin American magical realists are thus designated as fiction written in bad faith, “mere text[s that are] the seeming work of no recognisable personage,” whereas Henry James, the champion of the embodied first-person narrator, is held in special reverence. So while the house of fiction may have not one window but in fact a million, the discussions of the occupants of Murnane’s house of fiction bring about the closure of all but one of those windows while at the same time articulating many ways of appreciating the landscape onto which it opens.

What, then, of Murnane’s own work, especially his earlier work, when held to the standards articulated in this book? Neither Tamarisk Row nor A Lifetime on Clouds displays a “narrative presence” of the sort that the occupants of the house require in a work of fiction. A Million Windows therefore seems to be, on one level, an attempt on Murnane’s part to elucidate and justify the aesthetics of his mature work and so to find space within his body of work for the markedly different aesthetics of the two novels he published prior to entering his mature period. The suggestion that A Million Windows was written with this objective in view appears early on, when the narrator shares some remarks made by “a university lecturer in Islamic philosophy” who taught him during his time as a student nearly fifty years earlier:

He asked [his students] to call to mind a motor-car travelling on a road across a mostly level landscape. A person standing close beside the road and looking directly ahead would be aware for some time that the car has not yet reached him or her, then, for a brief time, that the car is present to his or her sight and then, for some time afterwards, that the car is no longer present, even if still audible. The lecturer then asked us to call to mind a person looking towards the road from an upper window of a building at some distance away. This person is aware of the car as being present to his or her sight during the whole time while it seems to be approaching, present to the sight of, and then travelling away from the person beside the road.

What the lecturer shared with his students is an image of hindsight in its most literal sense, hindsight of a spatial rather than a temporal nature. One result of the narrator’s inclusion of this image in A Million Windows is the implication that A Million Windows itself is looking out on its own author and watching him watch his own books fly past, over the course of several decades, while he remains unable to perceive them long beyond the moment of their writing or to see the place they might come to occupy in the broader landscape of his life. Yet the narrator assures his readers that he has no desire to “repudiate any fiction of mine the narrator of which has the viewpoint described above” — a viewpoint tantamount to third-person omniscience — “but I have wanted, for almost as long as I have been a writer of fiction, to secure for myself a vantage-point from which each of the events reported in a work of fiction such as this present work, and each of the personages mentioned in the work, might seem, at one and the same time, a unique and inimitable entity impossible to define or to classify but also a mere detail in an intricate scheme or design.”

While not exactly rewriting or revising Tamarisk Row and A Lifetime on Clouds, A Million Windows does attempt to incorporate their idiosyncrasies into the design of what has become the Murnane oeuvre, revisiting Clement Killeaton’s marble horse races and Adrian Sherd’s masturbation fantasies and then reconceptualising them as early manifestations of Murnane’s more recent metafictional interests. And while it does not shy away from the imagistic preoccupations of Barley Patch and A History of Books, it supplements their associative and recursive reminiscences with questions about the worth and value of fiction, with backward glances at bygone literary achievements and cold assessments of the likelihood of their longevity, which altogether involve its narrator subjecting himself to emotional risks that make A Million Windows more emotionally invested than either of its two predecessors. The result is an account of an author’s vexed ownership of all of the work that bears his name, a reconciliation of his early aesthetics with those of his more mature period, and a late attempt to unify, reconsider, and assess the lasting value of the fiction to which he has devoted his life — all without ever approaching these subjects directly or free of doubts and misgivings. A Million Windows is, in a sense, a retrospective manifesto written with an eye towards retroactive application: the last word on the work of a writer, written by the writer himself, so as to force readers to return to the first words he wrote and to cast a shadow over their readings of all the words that have appeared thereafter.

Why Tenth of December?

Of all of George Saunders’ story collections, why was this the one that received the most media coverage, the most rave reviews, the most prestigious awards, the most commendations in end-of-year retrospectives, and arguably the most readers? Saunders’ theme, as usual, is the degradation of lives lived under the boot heel of neoliberal economics. His characters are typically embroiled in the bitter yet petty disputes of local commerce and neighbourhood politics, or in the minor scandals and absurd shenanigans of workplaces designed to humiliate their employees, and in story after story these characters are compelled to ‘chin up’ — with a smile — or else incur some even more humiliating punishment. Impoverished parents lavish unaffordable luxuries upon ungrateful, arrogant children. The most vulnerable members of a society are subjected to human experimentation or turned into ornaments or fashion accessories for their social superiors. Minimum wage workers dress up in extravagant costumes and embarrass themselves in front of spectators at outlandish theme parks that seem geared towards systemic dehumanisation. Tenth and December makes room for all those sorts of stories and more, but the problem is that the same is true of Saunders’ previous story collections. Except perhaps for ‘Puppy’ and ‘Home,’ his two brief forays into something approaching conventional realism, there’s nothing in Tenth of December that Saunders hasn’t done better elsewhere. In his very best work — in the theme park stories ‘Pastoralia’ and ‘CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,’ and particularly in ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’ and ‘In Persuasion Nation’ — he not only depicts the degrading effects of neoliberal economics but eviscerates its logic, painstakingly and hilariously, by exposing its internal contradictions and satirising its pretensions to fairness and lampooning the preposterous claims of its Panglossian defenders. Here, however, the satire is in disastrously short supply, and the focus drifts amongst various snapshots of the sufferings of neoliberal economics without pulling back to explore the line of thought that would rationalise them. In other words, by Saunders’ own standards, Tenth of December plays it very safe — it is by far his most conservative book — and yet it has received more attention than any of his other titles and is repeatedly declared to be deserving of still more. Why?

To Find a Way In

I suppose it’s one of the perils of writing about the natural world that, on publication, your work ends up as ‘nature writing’ regardless of how reductive the genre label may be. Such has been the fate of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. Written in the early 1940s, locked in a drawer for twenty years, published at last in 1961, and promptly forgotten for several decades, Shepherd’s work has recently been retrieved from obscurity by Robert Macfarlane and hailed as an unjustly overlooked masterpiece of the genre he cherishes most. Yet Shepherd aims for something more, more literary, than most of what typifies the genre and even more than the best of the titles to which the genre lays claim: Roger Deakin’s Wildwood, for instance, or Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. Far less invested in describing her perceptions of a natural environment and reporting the sensory and spiritual experiences they afford her, Shepherd’s overriding concern is the search for words of adequate force to reverse the sensory flow. To halt and peel away the sensory stimulation she receives from the natural world, and then to apprehend the meaning she imposes on the world in the process of stimulation, and so to wonder whether, by an effort of the will, it might be possible for her to sense the world in ways not circumscribed by human subjectivity: this is the task she sets herself.

“This changing of focus in the eye, moving the eye itself while looking at things that do not move, deepens one’s sense of outer reality,” she writes in the book’s early pages to explain her approach to her surroundings:

[S]tatic things may [thus] be caught in the very act of becoming. By so simple a matter, too, as altering the position of one’s head, a different kind of world may be made to appear. … From the close-by sprigs of heather to the most distant fold of the land, each detail stands erect in its own validity. In no other way have I seen of my own unaided sight that the earth is round. As I watch, it arches its back, and each layer of landscape bristles—

But here, where she might have allowed herself to be swept up in the lyricism of her own descriptive prose, she pauses to reconsider her words and goes on to revise them. “[B]ristles is a word of too much commotion for it,” she concedes. “Details are no longer part of a grouping in a picture of which I am the focal point, the focal point is everywhere. Nothing has reference to me, the looker. This is how the earth must see itself.”

The object of Shepherd’s boundless fascination is the Cairngorm Plateau in northern Scotland, a plateau long ago fragmented under the pressure of the glacial drift that shaped the heights and carved out the valleys of the spectacular Cairngorm Mountains. In The Living Mountain, treating the whole of the plateau as one enormous mountain crowned with multiple peaks, Shepherd describes some of her experiences in the Cairngorms, albeit with a tighter focus on their quotidian details than on the eventful scaling of summits. The title, however, is slightly misleading in its suggestion that the book sets out to simply catalogue the varieties of life on the plateau. A more accurate title would be Living the Mountain, since the book in fact records an attempt to delve within the mountain and live as the mountain lives, to become the mountain itself and thereby bring to expression its view of the life that thrives on and around it. “So there I lie on the plateau,” Shepherd writes at the end, “under me the central core of fire from which was thrust this grumbling grinding mass of plutonic rock, over me blue air, and between the fire of the rock and the fire of the sun, scree, soil and water, moss, grass, flower and tree, insect, bird and beast, wind, rain and snow — the total mountain.” But while all of those elements of the Cairngorms are detailed in The Living Mountain, poetically and often adoringly, the purpose of their detailing seems to be for Shepherd to attempt to do what she now says she feels she has done. “Slowly,” she declares, “I have found my way in.” She wants not simply to experience the Cairngorm Plateau, nor to recount or convey an experience of it, but, having already experienced it, to retrospectively reach towards becoming the source of experience and to do so via an articulation of an appropriately suprahuman view of this part of the world.

Page by page, chapter by chapter, Shepherd works her way through the various aspects of the Cairngorm Plateau: its creation during the glacial age, its erosion by the elements, its resultant geology and geography, its plentiful plant and animal life, its metamorphosis under human hands. In each instance, though, looking beyond the surface of these aspects of the plateau, she finds her own vision imposing upon them a meaning they otherwise lack — reading significance into them much as one reads it into the symbols forming the words of a book — and then she casts about for ways in which to purge herself of this tendency to impose, all the better to see the plateau as it is in itself, in total, and stripped of onlookers’ preconceptions. “How can I number the worlds to which the eye gives me entry?” she marvels:

the world of light, of colour, of shape, of shadow: of mathematical precision in the snowflake, the ice formation, the quartz crystal, the patterns of stamen and petal: of rhythm in the fluid curve and plunging line of the mountain faces. … [But p]erhaps the eye imposes its own rhythm on what is only a confusion: one has to look creatively to see this mass of rock as more than jag and pinnacle — as beauty. … A certain kind of consciousness interacts with the mountain-forms to create this sense of beauty. Yet the forms must be there for the eye to see. And forms of a certain distinction: mere dollops won’t do it. It is, as with all creation, matter impregnated with mind.

Occasionally, Shepherd defends and even romanticises her admiration of the natural world, naming it as very literally her raison d’être. “[T]he resultant issue is a living spirit,” she writes, “a glow in the consciousness, that perishes when the glow is dead. It is something snatched from non-being, that shadow which creeps in on us continuously and can be held off by continuous creative act. So, simply to look on anything, such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to its essence, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence.” Ultimately, though, Shepherd finds herself drawn back to the tactility and integrity of the mountain, to its feeding of her senses, to her recurrent immersion in its surroundings, to her accretive appreciation of its quotidian being, and to the suprahuman view of the mountain that this appreciation allows her to achieve, piecemeal, over the course of a lifetime. “If I had other senses,” she writes,

there are other things I should know. It is nonsense to suppose, when I have perceived the exquisite division of running water, or a flower, that my separate senses can make, that there would be nothing more to perceive were we but endowed with other modes of perception. How could we imagine flavour, or perfume, without the senses of taste and smell? They are completely unimaginable. There must be many exciting properties of matter that we cannot know because we have no way to know them. Yet, with what we have, what wealth! I add to it each time I go to the mountain — the eye sees what it didn’t see before, or sees in a new way what it had already seen. So the ear, the other senses. It is an experience that grows; undistinguished days add their part, and now and then, unpredictable and unforgettable, come the hours when heaven and earth fall away and one sees a new creation.

Is it futile for Shepherd to attempt to articulate what she sees when she stands in awe of such moments? On occasion, it is, and as a result her articulations can contradict one another. But perhaps futility is simply the price to be paid by those who would seek to do what she does. Bending her own mode of being to better encompass that of something far beyond the human, she cannot help but bend and sometimes break the language through which she would channel this mode of being into human expression. It is, above all, this warping of both the woman and the words she uses that sets The Living Mountain apart from the bulk of that with which it has been forced to share a genre. Much nature writing, and much writing in general, is the echo of an author’s impulse to sit down and write. Some object sparks the imagination, the mind lights up with a glow, and the writing elaborates on the qualities of the vista newly illuminated. Rather than echoing that impulse, however, The Living Mountain turns towards it in order to strike at its very core. Shepherd’s imagination, sparked by the object of the Cairngorm Plateau, fixes its gaze on the spark itself to advance a conflation of subject and object, to burrow deep down inside the thing that both impels the writing and is written about, and so to investigate, rather than elaborate on, how and why it gives off the glow that lights up the imagination in the first place.