Review: Shriek: An Afterword

The caprices of the written word – of its infinite potential for misreading, misinterpretation, misrepresentation – have long been a concern of the Gothic mode: think of Frankenstein‘s layered unreliable narrators; of Wuthering Heights’ overheated epistolary format; of the uncertain ontological status of the film The Navidson Record in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Texts of all kinds, these novels tell us, are slippery, unstable things, contingent on the perceptions of both their readers and their writers; they both discuss this instability and perform it in the gaps between their constituent parts, in the way that they all, in various ways, use the hyperbolic aesthetics of the mode to reveal and conceal the great indescribable void that lies at the heart of language itself.

Jeff Vandermeer’s Shriek: An Afterword participates similarly in this process. Set in the fictional city of Ambergris, the subject of several of Vandermeer’s works, it is, as the title suggests, a purported afterword to “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris”, one of the stories in the collection City of Saints and Madmen (which I have not read, but now fully intend to). The fact that, being novel-length, it is substantially longer than the text it is supposedly appended to is one of its many deliberate, and delicious, ironies. It’s the tale of the “Early History”’s author, Duncan Shriek, edited substantially by his sister Janice, and then edited again by Duncan; together, by lurching turns, they tell the story of Duncan’s disgrace at the hands of his ex-lover, the rival historian Mary Sabon, and of Janice’s own rise and fall in the city’s art scene.

Underpinning these domestic dramas, like a constant uneasy pulse in the background, is the awareness of the unknowable realm that lies beneath the city – the realm of the gray caps, inscrutable fungoid creatures who were massacred in their thousands when Ambergris was founded, and who are widely considered to be behind a disastrous and inexplicable historical event called the Silence, when a large part of Ambergris’ citizenry disappeared without a trace. What are the gray caps thinking, what are they planning (they certainly seem to be planning something), what do they want and why? No-one knows. It is perhaps not possible to know.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the novel reminded me strongly of China Mieville’s sublime, messy Bas-Lag series, which is similarly interested in how what we fondly know as civilisation, the social order of the city, coexists with the unknowable and the inhuman. The gray caps and their fungal world are what Mieville would call abcanny: illegible, unspeakable, so utterly outside any human frame of reference as to be incapable of being contained in normal symbolic schema, and yet, perhaps precisely because of that, unignorable.

Set alongside the mystery of the gray caps, which Duncan is unsuccessfully trying to investigate, is the comparatively mundane fact of the novel’s metatextual games: its footnotes, its editorial interpolations, its interest in different methods of historiography and different ways of relating to the past. As we have seen, this kind of textual play troubles our understanding of language, of the written word, as straightforwardly representative; if each of us interprets language, and textual constructs like history, differently, what kind of claim can any of us ever make to objective truth?

Taken together, then, the gray caps and the novel’s textual instability both point up the inadequacy of our models of seeing the world; in Lacanian terms, they represent the Real intruding inescapably into the Symbolic. Duncan and Janice’s interpersonal problems seem almost irrelevant against the threat, the mystery, of the gray caps; their bickering over who gets the last word feels insignificant given their society’s inability to interpret events like the (aptly-named) Silence. And yet. Life goes on. The city remains.

As metaphors for the human condition go, it’s a troubling and perceptive one. The great strength of the novel is that it never does explain what the gray caps’ deal is; that despite all attempts to interact with them they remain simply…there, causing the city to stew in its own genocidal guilt, which it is neither willing to ignore nor to engage with productively. Vandermeer, like the best Gothic novelists, ekes tremendous resonance and power from the work of simultaneously concealing and revealing the unspeakability that lies at the heart of our most fundamental social structures, the senseless, brutal violence underlying much of Western civilisation. Ambergris, embattled and sinful city of saints and madmen, is a place I’ll definitely be returning to.

Review: The House of Ulloa

The House of Ulloa“Gothic” is a descriptor that’s thrown about a lot in relation to Emilia Pardo Bazan’s The House of Ulloa, but I’m not sure I agree that the novel’s truly Gothic in sensibility. First published in Spain in 1886, the novel follows the young priest Julian Alvarez on the first posting of his career, as chaplain to the debauched marquis of Ulloa, Don Pedro. The narrative focuses on Julian’s attempts to reform Don Pedro’s character and rescue his estate from the disarray Julian’s predecessor left it in – as well as from the control of Don Pedro’s majordomo Primitivo, who seems to have his fingers in a number of pies.

There are unmistakably Gothic elements to the tale: the crumbling family mansion, the debauched and degenerate noble house which recalls Edgar Allen Poe’s House of Usher, the wild, Brontean landscapes; later on, Don Pedro marries a sweet, naive young woman who pines away in the confinement of his house. But Bazan is primarily a realist; there is never any true suggestion of the supernatural or of the Gothic unknowable in her novel. In fact the horrors here are almost too knowable: one of the first things we see of the House of Ulloa is a group of grown men force-feeding wine to a toddler. In a Gothic novel such as, for instance, Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, or Wuthering Heights, whose landscapes Bazan’s so resemble, this kind of cruelty would remain subtextual, a narrative void generating the atmosphere of mystery, anxiety and suspense that characterises the Gothic as a genre. Here, in Bazan’s novel, there is no mystery: we’re told, right from the beginning, exactly how bad Don Pedro is. The question that the plot asks is not “How evil can a person be?” but “Is it possible for good to triumph over evil?” Can Julian save Don Pedro’s soul, or at least the earthly existence of his wife? Can his good Christian influence help regenerate the House of Ulloa?

Bazan’s conclusion, like those of many realist writers, is rather depressing; and I think on the whole I do prefer Gothic anxiety, Gothic excess, to the plain-spoken straightforwardness on display in The House of Ulloa. Which isn’t the book’s fault, of course; just a quirk of readerly preference.

Review: Never Let Me Go

This review contains spoilers.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is probably his most well-known novel, which doubtless has something to do with its sensational premise. It’s narrated by 30-year-old Kathy, who’s remembering her childhood at what appears to be a traditional English boarding school. Except it slowly becomes clear that every student at Hailsham is a clone whose eventual fate is to be slaughtered for their vital organs.

Not that the novel ever says so in such explicit terms. Indeed, its power lies precisely in the gap between Kathy’s matter-of-fact, almost affectless narration (“This was all a long time ago so I might have some of it wrong…”) and the terrible reality she is describing. Never Let Me Go proceeds in euphemism, in half-truths, in little significant silences. Having your vital organs taken from you is “donating”; dying is “completing”. We only find out what these things mean gradually; like the children at Hailsham, we are, in the words of one of their guardians, “told and not told”.

(I wonder what it would have been like to read this book without knowing its premise in advance? But then I might not have read it at all, so that’s really a pointless thought.)

One of the questions I asked myself when I was thinking about this post was “what’s this novel about?” Because if there’s one thing it’s not about, it’s cloning. Ishiguro has no interest in worldbuilding, in the scientific coherencies of his conceit. He doesn’t ask why, if science has advanced far enough that humans can be cloned reliably in their hundreds or thousands, the technology of his world still looks like that of the 1990s. Or what the point is of having clones care for donors before they become donors themselves. Or just how British society came to accept the farming of humans. And so on.

No; the key to the novel is in that horrific sucking gap between and behind Kathy’s words: the gap that is the Gothic unspoken. And the thing that the book refuses to speak is death. I think Kathy acknowledges maybe once that “completion” actually means “dying”; certainly the word is hardly ever used. There’s also a chillingly elegiac quality to the novel – chilling given Kathy’s young age; she speaks as though she’s going to retire soon, of a “change of pace” when she’ll have time to settle down, take stock, revisit favourite pieces of music. In fact, we understand slowly, terribly, she is soon to become a donor. Having seen most of her friends die as a carer, she is soon to die herself. Again, she never acknowledges this overtly; it’s a knowledge that haunts the novel, haunts us.

So: Never Let Me Go is a novel about death. Its inexorability; our inability to change the fact of it. Kathy’s narration is affectless because there is no emotion that will affect the ultimate truth of death. She accepts the trap she is caught in because there is literally nothing else she can do, as there is nothing we can do about our own mortality. At one point, she acts on an old rumour that clone couples can defer their deaths if they can prove that they truly love each other; the rumour turns out, of course, to be false, because even love cannot stand in the face of death. (Her relationship is, like everything else she describes, strangely emotionless, given that she’s trying to prove she is in True Love.)

It’s a bleak novel. It’s also compulsively readable: I raced through the pages, trying to find out what happened next, what new truths would be revealed, how Kathy would save herself, only to find instead, eventually, that there was no next, only the imminent incursion of the great and unspeakable Real: death. There is no rebellion against the system the novel describes, either personal or political, just acquiescence and resignation.

The question the novel raises in its final pages, whether it’s better to know the full bleakness of your future straight up, or to cling to art and humanity and culture, is one that’s going to stay with me for a while. I don’t have an answer. Kathy believes the guardians at Hailsham were wrong to shelter her and her friends from what awaited them. But as Hailsham’s old headmistress points out, at least that way they had something of a life; they had art and purpose and direction and a childhood.

So as well as a novel about death, this is a novel about meaning. How we make it. What we do with it. Whether meaning is illusory, paper over the cracks of our symbolic world; whether it’s necessary despite its flimsiness.

It’s appropriate that a novel full of silences refuses to give us any answers.