“The mere touch of cold philosophy.” – Keats
Reviewed in this column:
Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman, trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, USA; Pushkin Press, UK, 2012)
Communion Town by Sam Thompson (Fourth Estate, 2012)
Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway (Granta Books, 2012)
After more of a hiatus than I intended (let’s just say my first term of teaching was far more exciting than I anticipated), I’m happy to be starting 2013 by delivering another column to Weird Fiction Review and getting myself onto a regular schedule again. Of course, January is the graveyard of good intentions and new year resolutions, but I have a good feeling about 2013. A very good feeling.
If the weird is very much an urban phenomenon, it nonetheless still manifests itself in many and varied ways. And by one of those strange chances that seem to be so characteristic of the weird, towards the end of last year there appeared three very different novels which offer us three very different representations of the city, all of which are distinctively weird in their execution.
The first of the novels is Andrés Neuman’s Traveler of the Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Pushkin Press, 2012; trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) which might at first look like a particularly densely written historical novel. The clue to its being something different lies, perhaps, in the fragmentary gazetteer entry tucked in among the epigraphs and dedications at the beginning of the novel, like a tattered cutting from an old newspaper, worn and illegible from too much handling. This in itself should be held as an indication that something strange is afoot but if not, the entry surely makes it clear.
Wandernburg: shifting city sit. approx between ancient states of Saxony and Prussia. Cap. of ancient principality of same name. Lat. N and long. E indeterminate due to shifting co-ord. […] Despite accounts of chroniclers and travellers, precise loc. unknown.ations
This promises much: a shifting city, situated between ancient states, but only approximately; chronicled but impossible to locate. Surely here we are entering into liminal territory? The very name of the place – ‘wandering town’ – insists upon it, while anyone familiar with the political history of the area knows already that this is a region of fluid territorial boundaries, with towns finding themselves belonging first to one kingdom and then to another, all without moving a single inch. In that case, why shouldn’t a town become completely mislaid somewhere in the border zone?
As if this weren’t enough, the town itself remains strangely aloof from the approaching traveller. ‘For some time now Wandernburg had been visible in the distance, to the south. And yet, thought Hans, […] the small city seemed to be moving in step with them, and getting no nearer’. Only after Hans dozes off does the elusive town seem to relent and allow his coach to enter. When he wakes, he is already at the town gates. There is no moment of approach, only the spectral vision of a distant citadel followed immediately by the visceral thickness of a wall in which Hans senses something cold, ‘as if it were a warning about how hard it would be to leave rather than to enter’.
And thus it proves, as Hans’ overnight stay becomes two days, a third day, then longer, open-ended. The coachman no longer stops to see if he wants to move on while Hans has come to an agreement with Herr Zeit about his room. Time is, quite literally, at Hans’s disposal as he settles into Wandernburg, or perhaps Wandernburg begins to settle into him as he begins by trying to make sense of its bafflingly unstable geography, then gradually immersing himself in its daily life. The reader in turn wonders about Hans – Hans Hans, to give him his full name – an intellectual of some sort, a writer, or translator, or maybe an agitator; a man with a mysterious trunkful of books but no clear destination. The canny reader might turn back to the novel’s title and wonder what, exactly, it means to be a ‘traveller of the century’. ‘You talk like a detective’, says the organ grinder whom Hans has befriended,
And perhaps Hans is, though as he explores every stratum of the town’s society, it is difficult to determine what it is he seeks. He befriends the mysterious organ grinder, and through him meets Reichert and Lamberg, working-class intellectuals with whom he discusses the plight of the town’s workers. At the same time, Hans finds his way to the salon run by Sophie Gottlieb in her father’s house, filled with the supposedly great and good of Wandernburg, who profess a more genteel, frequently stultifying brand of discussion, somewhat to Sophie’s frustration. Few welcome Hans’ taste for dissenting opinions but he forms friendships with those who do, and he and Sophie pursue a love affair that is by turns blatant, scandalous and intellectually satisfying to them both as they make love, talk, work together on translations.
If one were being reductive, one might argue that Traveler of the Century is nothing more than a rather wordy account of Hans and Sophie’s love affair, with far too much conversational detail. However, that would be to entirely misunderstand what is going on here. As at least one reviewer has noted, Traveler is better read as a ‘total novel’, something deeply immersive, all-encompassing, perhaps akin to the work of people like Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the totality of its detail (though emphatically not magical realist – this is a very European novel). By the end of the novel, while we still know very little about Hans himself, we have an intensely rich and detailed understanding of the town and its inhabitants, what they think and feel, how they respond to the outside world, and to Hans as its newest representative. We learn about the darker side of civic life but at the same time, even at the novel’s closing we realise just how little we still know about the place and the people.
For my own part, I was initially attracted to the novel by the various references to Wandernburg’s unstable geography in the reviews I was reading – the potential collapse of boundaries is, I have to admit, a key personal signifier of weird fiction. At the same time, I couldn’t help noticing how no two reviews seemed to be about the same novel, which struck me as very intriguing. Having read it, I can understand why. Traveller of the Century is so huge, so all-enveloping, it effectively invites each reader to construct their own novel within its framework, surrounded by the story yet somehow independent of it too, rather like Wandernburg itself. Each novel butts up against the others but remains complete in itself. And for those familiar with the European novel tradition, the narrative is replete with references to other novels, offering a whole new layer of intertextual overflowing, while those familiar with Schubert’s Winterreise have probably already acknowledged the presence of the organ grinder.
Sam Thompson’s Communion Town (Fourth Estate, 2012) makes explicit that which is obliquely understood
in Traveller of the Century, that a city is composed of many different stories, often contradictory or tangential to one another. While Traveler of the Century offers the reader a superficial unity, one that many of Wandernburg’s inhabitants work studiously to maintain, all neatly encapsulated in those city walls that seem so reluctant to let one go, Communion Town, with no obvious geography to contain it, is a heaving mass of … I was going to say ‘discrepancies and contradictions’, but that would imply a unity that the narrative does not, very particularly does not, possess. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that the narrative is invariably working against this. ‘A City in Ten Chapters’ runs the subtitle, but it is not a city so much as ten different cities, told in ten different voices, each city so different from the next almost the only thing they have in common is an intermittent coincidence of street names, along with a fear of dark nights, when the Flâneur allegedly walks abroad, and the presence, in the shadows, of pale, mysterious monsters.
Whereas Wandernburg’s geography seems to stabilise the longer one remains there, the geography of Communion Town, insofar as Communion Town is a place rather than an abstract idea of a city, is endlessly flexible. It might be London, except for a reference to something I definitely recognised as being in Brighton, but what about that strange Mediterranean harbourside and the hinterland that made me think of a West Indian sugar plantation, not to mention the distinctly American mean streets of another story? And look, didn’t we catch a glimpse of that person, oh so briefly, in an earlier story, just walking down the street? Communion Town transcends topography and seems rather to exist in folds of the imagination; indeed, in one story, it seems to be a huge model on the floor of a room, created in response to a misunderstanding, made out of bits of scrap, a child’s building blocks and anything else that comes to hang while in another story it becomes impossible to distinguish between the memory city and the real city – are the characters themselves part of an act of imagination (yes, of course they are, but not that act of imagination, I mean a fictional act of imagination). In yet another instance, the character who cannot enter the city might in fact be a city in her own right. But the trick, always, is to avoid seeing Communion Town as a single organic whole. Yes, the reader might forge connections between different chapters, but they are temporary, fragile, like most of the relationships made within the city. Little if anything is permanent, except for the city itself, layered, storied, preserved, vibrant yet strangely unreal and inaccessible. From the first nervous arrival of the refugee seeking asylum to the last messy break-up and unexpected departure, it is a place of meetings and farewells rather than a place of permanent residence. To become rooted in the city is to be absorbed into it, transformed, and rarely for the better.
Not only is Communion Town a series of stories, it is also a kind of compendium of the ways in which people write about the city. Thus the classic PI story vies for attention with the classic detective story, though each in its turn is subverted by Communion Town itself. Alongside these traditional city narratives are the stories of love found and lost in the city, stories of refuge gone sour, stories of renewal and darker accounts of human nature twisted in some mysterious way by its contact with the immeasurability of Communion Town. Even then, nothing is quite what it seems. A traditional story of a private investigator working for a client can be transformed into something temporally and chronologically unstable, bringing together scraps of myth and references to Shakespeare to reimagine a Prince Hal for a new (old) city.
Attempts to pin down Communion Town are invariably futile. This is perhaps most clearly illustrated in the chapter entitled ‘The Significant City of Lazarus Glass’, a classic Holmesian-style detective story that is simultaneously a lovingly crafted pulp parody of itself. Here, Lazarus Glass, brilliant detective turned master criminal, has transformed Communion Town into an act of imagination, a memory city, at first as a means to detect crime but later as a vehicle for his own passions, to avenge perceived slights against him among other things, but requiring him to become ever more deeply involved in the construction of the city’s fabric, to turn it to his own advantage. To achieve this, however, is to remain locked in a battle with others who would alter the city in ways inimical to his plans. For the city to live, it must be always out of control, a fact that Glass doesn’t fully understand. As others’ stories indicate, it is the city’s very monstrosity that feeds it. To attempt to shape it along rational lines is to bring stasis, a condition that Communion Town instinctively resists.
Again, this seems to have been a novel, a series of episodes, call it what you will, that divides opinion, insofar as people either seem instinctively to ‘get’ it or find it too peculiar and elusive to make much of it at all. For my own part, I love the complex layering, half-hints of relationships, not to mention the sense that all this is round the corner in every town, if you know how to look.
Strangely enough, it seems to have been a year for novels that divide opinion and also fit the brief for this column, for to Traveler of the Century and Communion Town I must add the strange and remarkable Hawthorn and Child (Granta Books, 2012) by Keith Ridgway, a novel which has attracted a considerable amount of attention thanks to recommendations via social media, and deserves every scrap of it. If Wandernburg is no town in particular and Communion Town is all towns yet none, Hawthorn and Child is reassuringly set in the easily identifiable territory of North London. More than that, it starts out as a detective novel, with Hawthorn and Child as the detectives at the heart of the story, taxed with solving the mystery of a young man who was, as he so memorably puts it, ‘shot by a car’. Except that this is a car that no one can identify and that doesn’t show up on CCTV, except, perhaps, for one brief, shadowy moment, in another street altogether. More than that, there seems to be no obvious motive for the shooting and Hawthorn and Child’s superior is impatient to wrap things up and get on with other jobs. He has two men in a car who look as though they might fit the bill as perpetrators, though the car they’re driving is nothing like the description given, but CCTV definitely places them as being in the area at the time, and so on, and so on. So far, this is all very familiar territory, the stock-in-trade of any number of contemporary crime stories, except, perhaps, for that being ‘shot by a car’, but intriguing though it is, even that isn’t what prompts me to draw this novel to your attention.
What happens next is … in fact, the question is, what does happen next? The novel may start within the recognisable structure of a detective novel but very quickly distorts and overflows its narrative container, sprawling across the streets of London like spilled entrails, messy, no longer easily fitting into the space in which they were originally contained, almost impossible to control. Insofar as there is a structure, it is provided by the presence of Hawthorn and Child, detective partners, possibly friends too, but very different in their methods and their outlook on life. We follow them, most often Hawthorn, into their private lives. Hawthorn, we sense, is a man with a knack for connecting seemingly random ideas when he’s working on a case. He is, Child assures him, a terrible detective but he is intuitive whereas Child is methodical, does things by the book, takes better notes, takes care of himself.
They have an ongoing case, the pursuit of a ‘broker’ called Mishazzo, a man whose business is not easily defined, though it is almost certainly criminal. Sometimes he seems to be involved in the handling of stolen cars, other times he deals in property, and still other times he visits people. Yet we do not watch with Hawthorn and Child. Instead, the narrative slips in and out of other people’s viewpoints, moving further and further away from the two detectives, into the lives of other people, all linked by a tenuous thread of connection to Mishazzo. We see Hawthorn and Child’s boss, Rivers, his daughter Catherine, her boyfriend Stuart, their lives simple and ordinary yet touched suddenly by the bizarre death of an old friend of Rivers, who seems, inexplicably, to have hung herself while burning herself to death. We see Mishazzo’s driver suddenly realise he can no longer continue with his life when it threatens his relationship, we follow Mishazzo’s associates out to the edge of London, to a small garage, to a group of men working there on cars, and to a bizarre story, a manuscript of a fantasy novel, which draws in another viewpoint figure, and so it goes on. There are burglars, hostage-takers, paranoid schizophrenics.
The narrative twists and turns, the reader tries to make connections, but if they exist they are mostly fleeting, as if the reader briefly catches someone’s eye and then contact is broken, almost before it is made. There is only a vestigial sense of linearity, precious little causality, and no resolution, none of the things we might expect from a detective novel; no neat and tidy moment of restoration, in which the world is once again made whole. Things momentarily acquire importance then fall away again as the narrative interest moves elsewhere. There is oddness, weirdness even, but it swims in and out of focus, along with the more obviously mundane, to the point where it is impossible to determine what is real, what might be imagined, even within the terms of novel. We might even begin to wonder if Hawthorn and Child themselves are constructs within the fictional framework, figments of someone else’s imagination, but if they are, we will never be quite certain. Hawthorn and Child must forever remain a series of intriguing but elusive possibilities and in that lies its wonderful strangeness.
I’d be hard put to pick a favourite from among these three novels and I’m not even going to try, not least because they are so different, yet all three have haunted me in their various ways since I first read them. The idea of the city is so replete with possibility it’s fascinating to watch different authors drawing out such different aspects of that potential. All three deserve your attention.