Discover more from Unbeaten Paths
Emily Hall, The Longcut (Dalkey Archive)
Ansgar Allen, Wretch (Scism Neuronics), The Sick List (Boiler House Press), Plague Theatre (Equus Press)
Mark De Silva, The Logos (Splice/Clash Books)
Observing Herself Observe
How we respond to the unnamed protagonist of Emily Hall's The Longcut is primarily determined by how we adjust ourselves to her first-person narration. From the beginning, it almost seems she is speaking more to herself than to us:
I was always asking myself what my work was, I thought as I walked to the gallery. As an artist I knew I should know what my work was, I thought as I walked, still I did not know what my work was, could not stop asking myself what my work was, it being impossible to think about anything else
The near obsessive-compulsive repetition might suggest that this is meant as a "report" of sorts of the narrator's ongoing thought process (a form of stream-of-consciousness), but she is clearly recording, not merely reporting or signaling disjointedly ("I thought as I walked"), although it does remain unclear exactly how her account is being recorded. The narration seems to exist in some gray zone between and among speaking, thinking, and writing: the narrator seems to be interrogating her own "cognitive space," as she puts it, but this involves perceptions of her physical space as well, both of them often invoked in language that is both insistently detached and often hyper-aware, as if observing herself observe, or thinking about herself thinking.
What she observes and what she thinks about are relentlessly focused on coming to some resolution about "what my work was." This initial conundrum, the protagonist's confusion about what kind of artist she is or will be, is the motivating force driving her actions, as well as the narrative as a whole--the "plot" itself doesn't really move beyond the search for a solution to this conundrum, so what we are left with is the narrator's ultimately very peculiar manner of articulating her dilemma.
The central action of the novel, such as it is, does indeed take place mostly as the protagonist is walking through the streets of a city (unnamed) on her way to meet with an art dealer, although a final episode follows her right after what turns out to be a very consequential meeting indeed. During her walk we are also provided flashbacks to the various circumstances that have led her both to this interview with a "gallerist," who she hopes, of course, will exhibit her work, as well as to her radical uncertainty about the nature of that work, which she also hopes the gallerist will help her overcome. These flashbacks are highly recursive and digressive, which might tempt us to regard them as her "thoughts," but they are thoughts fully-formed and often intricately arranged. They also function as exposition, filling us in--if at times obliquely--on her artistic aspirations, as well as her experiences in a dreary office job she must endure until, presumably, those aspirations are achieved. Here she must expend her energies making sure she has "answered my share of questions and moved them into the 'completed' column," all the while suffering "slant looks" from her boss.
Even when she arrives at the gallery (for a conversation arranged by her friend, "the well-known artist who set up situations"), there are additional lengthy passages in which the narrator meditates on the efficacy of listening to music while making art, on what she has chosen to wear, on a satchel carried by a man on the subway. When she finally begins to speak to the gallerist, she suddenly utters
a torrent of open questions about bodies inhabiting garments or buildings. Most people, it had to be said, finding themselves willingly or unwillingly subject to my torrents, found themselves unprepared, the torrents producing in them --the willing or unwilling listeners--expressions of shock or immediate exhaustion. What if I photographed the expressions of shock or exhaustion, I had asked myself on several occasions. So much for my plan of avoiding blurting, I thought, even as I was torrenting along, evidently not having routed the plan sufficiently thoroughly through my cognitive apparatus.
Perhaps The Longcut itself could be taken as a "torrent" of the narrator's language, except that it is not really a torrent flowing headlong but on its meandering and serpentine way. The torrent isn't really slowed--or at least made less turbulent--until the gallerist actually does suggest to the narrator what her art is (assuming that it is an understanding the protagonist has had all along). But the gallerist's observation that what the protagonist has been showing her has an almost algebraic quality to it ("solving for x") is clearly something that the protagonist has not before considered, and what she seems to conclude is the accuracy of the gallerist's description temporarily disorients her.
After a day of brooding on the implications of this (for her) revelation, she is able to assimilate this new self-knowledge and musters her resolve to act on it, having satisfactorily, it would seem, clarified her artistic purpose, which is to proceed as if the question of purpose is always open, undecided:
to do anything I could to unfind the answer to the question of what my work was, to unaccept the fact of knowing the answer, to unknow, to uncomplete, unaccept, unclose. I would unsolve for x, I would deny there was an x to be solved. I would arrange things to my dissatisfaction in all cases, every case would be the case, I would botch every transition, every border crossing, botching every border between categories or realms, dwelling in the botched transition, the hiccup, the glitch. . . .
This seems like a perfectly good credo upholding a practice of art as radical possibility, but these final flourishes of refortified purpose, so quickly following the protagonist's moment of recognition with the gallerist, at the least seem rushed, so much so as to verge on melodrama. Some such rededication to art lurks beneath the novel's attenuated quest narrative all along, and the terms of the protagonist's pledge to avoid narrowing her scope is conventional enough that it doesn't escape coming off as predictable.
Perhaps to extend the narrator's monologue much farther risks decreased readerly patience with the narrator's eccentric discursive habits, although at a time when the prose of a writer like Thomas Bernhard has become increasingly influential, such a move would not seem particularly extreme. However, even if the protagonist's enlightenment occurred less abruptly, the fulfillment of the narrator's quest for artistic direction as the primary conceit seems inherently slight in a novel that introduces itself as more radically unconventional in its verbal density and formal convolution. However much the protagonist wants to "unaccept" the answer to which her initial question led her, a better answer might have been that it is less important to rhetorically interrogate one's art than it is simply to make it, rendering the question superfluous to begin with.
Still, pursuing the question has certainly prompted Emily Hall to write a novel whose narrator (and her narration) are compelling creations, reservations about plot aside. If finally her way of grappling with the imperatives of art is rather more interesting than any conclusions she reaches about art itself, this should not deflect attention away from this art the author of The Longcut has made.
Making Sense of the Thing
The fiction of Ansgar Allen could be called "academic" in an almost literal sense, except that it seems designed to provide an alternative of sorts to academic writing per se--an opportunity to engage with abstract ideas and to contemplate the role of education and the intellect while leaving behind the prescribed forms of expression required by academic writing. This fiction is somewhat reminiscent of the work of Lars Iyer, although while Iyer's novels take the form of quasi-Platonic dialogues in which the characters talk about philosophical ideas, Allen's seem more like parables or fables, in which the narrator-protagonist does directly invoke specific books and ideas but which also themselves embody or dramatize the implications of ideas and ways of thinking.
Allen has published three short novels and a novella since 2020 (a fourth novel is due to be published at the end of 2022). The first, Wretch, is the most purely fabular, and could very loosely be called a post-apocalyptic narrative, although no specifications of time, place, or context are ever given. The narrator relates his experiences as a prisoner of sorts, locked in a small room and instructed to make copies of documents that are slipped to him under the door. The documents seem to be reports submitted by teams of explorers who venture to the outskirts of the "known city" and beyond, investigating what is out there--the "dark regions," although the copyist also at times alters the documents, "providing some measure of clarification, a degree of reordering in order to render what is heard, or what was written, into fresh print." Still, the job takes its toll, as we find the narrator at the beginning of the narrative recovering from a "derangement," an incident in which he destroyed the "machine" with which he carries out the copying: "The full medical report was described, briefly. The machine bore the imprint of chaos, they said. It demanded rehabilitation."
That he now be regarded as an "ordered mind" is obviously of great importance to the narrator, and this imperative seems to reflect an overriding need for order and fear of disorder in the world he inhabits. Whether this outlook accounts for the narrator's situation to begin with is unclear--the narrator finds himself confined as a threat to established order--but the incursions into the unknown regions seem motivated both by a perception the existing order must be extended due to inadequate resources and an absolute terror of what lies beyond the limits of the known. The circumstances described by the narrator (as filtered through the reports he copies) bespeak a society reduced to a kind of subsistence level and attempting to, in effect, start over, but finally nothing about those circumstances can really be certain for the reader, since the narrator's rendition is inherently unreliable. Certainly the entire narrative could be a projection of the narrator's precarious mental state.
Or perhaps the text we are reading is an assemblage of the documents he has copied--if in fact copying is what he actually does. The strength of Wretch partially consists in its open-endedness, its spareness giving the narrative an allegorical structure that might be read in multiple ways, or that may have no emblematic significance at all. Allen's second novel, The Sick List, is less purely metaphorical in its narrative manner, more discursive. Its philosophical ideas are brandished outright, although again whatever specifiable meaning it might all "add up" to is equally indeterminate. Its narrator, a graduate student or instructor at a generic university, tells us of his obsession with the ideas and reading habits of a fellow academic named Gordon. Gordon has a scathing, skeptical attitude toward academe itself, an attitude he has instilled in his acolyte--except that the narrator is never portrayed meeting or actually talking to Gordon. Instead, the narrator closely tracks the books Gordon checks out from the university library, inspecting them for underlines and comments Gordon has made in the margins as well as reading the books carefully himself in order to illuminate the worldview he attributes to Gordon and that the narrator earnestly shares.
In addition to the narrator's chronicle of Gordon's activities and of his own inspection of Gordon's books, he also tells us of a strange condition that overcomes faculty across multiple university campuses. At his own university, two researchers in the education department are discovered sitting in a stupor at their desks. "One had been sitting there from Thursday to the following Monday until she was found. The other had been sitting at her desk from Wednesday to Friday. Both were dehydrated. . .Reports were coming in from other institutions of similar goings on. Sociology departments in neighboring cities seem to have been first affected. . .In the hard sciences it was hardest to detect, since there was very little difference between the slack-jawed behaviour and the usual behaviour that goes by the name of hard science." The primary occupant of "the sick list" is the University itself, which is both the object of Gordon's obloquies ("It is impossible to think at work, in the university, Gordon would say. Its offices are not places of thought") and is now apparently the generator of some literal intellectual malaise.
The author to whom Gordon increasingly turns as the narrative progresses is Thomas Bernhard, whose blunt hostility to the modern world naturally enough would appeal to Gordon, who seems to direct a similar antipathy specifically to academe and its enervation of the intellect. Given the novel's own formal and stylistic resemblance to Bernhard (a single extended paragraph using the same sort of long and discursive sentences), we have to conclude that Ansgar Allen also identifies with the Bernhardian outlook, although perhaps we might say that the author's sympathies with the narrator's allegiance to both Gordon and Bernhard meets its limits at the novel's conclusion, when the narrator literally begins to stalk Gordon in fear that no more wisdom from Gordon's second-hand books will be forthcoming. If the university is sick, the narrator himself joins the sick list with a sickness brought about by a certain kind of analytical learning.
Both Wretch and The Sick List could be called metafictional, since they so directly concern themselves with acts of reading and writing (Wretch could plausibly be taken as an allegorical rendering of the status of the bedraggled modern writer). Plague Theatre continues this strategy, if anything even more conspicuously, as the decoding of text and the process of notation become the story told: an again unnamed narrator (probably an academic, although the university itself does not play a role in the narrative) is given an old, water-logged manuscript that has been discovered during a digging project in the cellar of a hotel (a swimming pool is to be installed). The owner of the property believes it might be valuable (giving the hotel a little extra cachet as an historical site) and asks the narrator "to make some sense of the thing." This proves to be challenging indeed, as the manuscript disintegrates even as the narrator turns its pages, so that he must copy out the manuscript--or what survives of it--by hand.
What emerges is a version of the manuscript, which tells the story of a plague that hit the English coastal city of Scarborough in 1720, but which does not simply present a cleaned-up (so to speak) narrative of those events. In the process of deciphering the manuscript, the narrator expands the text with interpolated reflections on two writers whose work helps illuminate the concept of "plague." The novel begins, in fact with a quotation from Antonin Artaud's "Theatre and the Plague" (later the narrator tells us he decided to do this after beginning to read the manuscript, becoming convinced that the essay was "the key to understanding the manuscript") and, perhaps inescapably, Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year also comes to seem related to the Scarborough plague. Artaud's assertion that plague is finally "a feature of mind, and is passed on by way of the mind" not only provides the events in Scarborough with a larger, more figurative significance, but also affects the interpretation of those events the narrator offers, lending them an air of menace and mystery that perhaps the manuscript's narrative doesn't altogether corroborate.
But this is the advantage of treating what could be an abstract subject--the metaphysical implications of "plague"--through fiction, which doesn't abandon the intellect but operates by a different kind of logic, one of association and particularity. Becoming concrete, the implications of plague are both less grandiose and more disturbing than when grasped only in their intellectual formulation. The narrator regards museums--where the manuscript might otherwise be placed--as an institution where intellect can only be destroyed, something that The Sick List maintains is also true of the university. Yet the protagonists of both The Sick List and Plague Theatre are largely preoccupied with the intellect, which is also shown to be hazardous: at the end of each novel the narrators have been driven toward something like madness. In all of his fiction so far, Allen incorporates ideas by subjecting them to the transformations induced by literary invention, which works to illuminate the hazard.
A Voice from Nowhere
Perhaps the most formidable obstacle to an unequivocal appreciation of Mark de Silva's The Logos is exasperation with the novel's narrator/protagonist. Actually more than exasperation: the narrator is an unlikeable, often unpleasant fellow. Of course, literature is replete with unlikeable or morally suspect protagonists, and in itself this does not invalidate the aesthetic merits of a work of fiction. But The Logos is a prodigiously lengthy work (over 1,000 pages in the U.K. version published by Splice, 728 pages in the edition now published by Clash Books), and abiding with a character and voice that are often enough obnoxious but also at times simply dull is a fraught exercise for any reader.
That de Silva is deliberately presenting us with an obnoxious narrator would certainly be a plausible enough assumption, although presuming the reader's continuing patience with such a narrator over the course of a narrative of such mammoth size seems an overly sanguine expectation unless the novel offers interest of other kinds that reinforce a more compelling aesthetic vision. But while the narrator of The Logos--a prominent artist whose girlfriend has left him--provides plenty of talk about art, the novel itself is formally and stylistically more or less conventional. de Silva has skillfully created a fully rounded, consistently believable character, and in his role as narrator this character relates a sometimes odd but abundantly detailed narrative, but there really isn't much about either the character or the story that is sufficiently innovative or compelling they would overcome a reader's antipathy to a narrator as insistent on his presence--other characters play their parts in the novel, but always subsidiary to the protagonist and his concerns--as our not-so-humble narrator in this novel. Thus, even if we decide to stay with the narrative despite our discontent with his presence, doubt about its ultimate purpose remains.
The narrator (unnamed throughout the novel) certainly takes his own art very seriously, and is very opinionated about artistic practice and art history, concerning both of which he admittedly seems very well-informed, even learned. Yet his expressions of these opinions, while never less than intelligent, are highly discursive and expository:
Painting, I came to realize, was almost an apology for the nakedness of drawing, a way of glossing over its conceptual blading of the world. It was a way of seeing blindly, so to speak, or passively, without the critical powers of the mind. Photography only heightened this tendency; that's why so many painters have been entranced by the lens, optics, the camera obscura, and the photograph. In contrast, drawing was without doubt an analytical art: the mind's contribution was obvious, and there was no attempt at representing a sensory given--as if such a thing were possible. . .
Drawing, then. began to feel like the intellectual height of the two-dimensional arts, its essence, its philosophy, not some rough-and-ready starting point toward rendering surfaces, as the pervasive notion of the sketch would suggest, but the ultimate product, fully distilled. This is why, for me, photography poses at least a prima facie problem for painting, in its competition for surfaces, whereas it offers no difficulty at all to drawing, properly understood.
These passages are interspersed throughout the narrative, slowing down the already rather slowly developing plot with what is essentially critical commentary--although the narrator's prose style when relating the story he has to tell does not differ drastically from that which he employs when dilating upon art. Perhaps the commentary gives the narrator some credibility in our consideration of his artistic habits, but often they seem like set-pieces that eventually contribute to an increasing weariness with both the narrator's actions and the digressive way he recounts those actions.
These set-pieces seem even more peculiar when considering the novel's narrative perspective. It is a first-person narrative, but the rhetorical situation seems free-floating, detached from any plausible point of origin: never are we told the narrator is actually writing down his account of himself after Claire, his now ex-girlfriend and fellow artist, has departed, or even that he is speaking aloud (on a tape recorder, for example).Thus we encounter this voice from nowhere whose exposition is nevertheless carefully and strategically composed, which accentuates the character's status as the verbal artifact of the author's literary ventriloquism and ultimately makes it harder to dismiss the narrator's more unpleasant qualities as just the flaws of an otherwise "well-rounded" character. The narrator's verbal manner flattens out the fictive discourse to an obsessive, self-involved monologue that almost inevitably comes to seem an exercise in narcissism.
But does the author want us to judge this character a narcissist, or are we to find that the portrait of an artist that emerges from his narration to some degree mandates that we overlook his more prosaic character flaws? After all, artists are infamously opinionated and self-absorbed, known to exploit other people to their own benefit. Indeed, for an artist who specializes in portraiture, as does the narrator of this novel, such exploitation may be unavoidable. But in The Logos, what the protagonist seems most eager to exploit is his own talent, not on projects commensurate with the artistic principles he articulates throughout the novel but on an opaque publicity campaign sponsored by a wealthy capitalist who professes an interest in the narrator's art. For this campaign the narrator is tasked with making a series of drawings of two people selected by the capitalist, a troubled but talented young football player and an actress known so far for her roles in obscure independent films and theater. These drawings are reproduced in a variety of forms and displayed around town, apparently at random but actually according to a strategy devised by the capitalist and his advertising adviser. The project is ultimately judged a success (by the capitalist, but others aren't so sure), and our narrator is well-compensated for his work, but for the reader this whole endeavor remains murky in its purpose and sporadic in its interest.
In his interactions with the football player and the actress (Duke and Daphne), we do learn a great deal about the narrator's attitude toward black people and women--much of it not very laudable. He is not directly racist or sexist, but he clearly harbors views reinforcing the usual kinds of stereotypes (about the dangers posed by black people or the sexual availability of women, for example). Perhaps these views are themselves just a function of the narrator's egoism and his complacency about the world beyond its relevance to his work, but those qualities over the course of a novel so extended become manifestly apparent as well, so that finally the chronicle of the narrator's encounters with Duke and Daphne, his participation in the hybrid art/public relations project more generally, doesn't really reveal the narrator's character defects so much as confirm the alienating effect that his presentation of himself induces from the very beginning.
I remained as uncertain about whether provoking such alienation from his protagonist is one of de Silva's objectives for the novel as when I felt the first stirrings of hostility toward the narrator. If a profound ambivalence about this character is part of de Silva's design, it seems to me aesthetically questionable to prolong the reader's discomfort over the entire course of such a protracted narrative. If instead we are meant to some degree to experience some empathy for the narrator in his attempt to rebound from romantic disappointment, all I can say is that I had a very difficult time mustering it. Perhaps de Silva's intentions don't fully encompass either of these options: the protagonist embodies the artist's quest to be faithful to his vision despite his own limitations and the triviality of the culture he confronts. I am unable to interpret the novel this way myself, but I don't want to discount the possibility I may be misreading it.
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