I wish I could say straight-up what I’ve been reading. I keep a record of titles completed. But I hesitate because, these last few months, I’m not sure how much of my habit of looking at words meets the threshold for ‘reading’. For the most part, it hasn’t summoned from me the quality of attention to make the reading material stick. Reasons? It’s been 12 weeks since I began going over the early proofs of my new novel, line by line, making adjustments. It’s been six weeks since I started again on the next-to-final proofs, and a fortnight or so since I finished the job. Like Sebald’s narrator in The Rings of Saturn, there’s an ’emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work’, and one of my ways of dispelling it is basically to binge on books. Since June, I’ve run my eyes across the pages of almost thirty. But, then, can I say I’ve read them? Certainly I’ve seen their sentences. In memory, though, most of them have left no residue. Only three remain with me—three that received a higher quality of attention from me because they demanded it, because their own attention to language was such that I felt I was learning my language all over again.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, my most intense reading experience of the last few months came about thanks to Kathryn Davis’ The Silk Road. At least, this wouldn’t surprise anyone already familiar with Davis’ work: her track record surely makes her a viable candidate for the best novelist working today in the English language, if one of the most unjustly under-read. Actually, though, it’d be more accurate to describe Davis as a novelist who works with language rather than in it, since she weaves her magic precisely by taking not a word of it as given, by dispensing with received notions of what it is for and what it can do.
Readymade evidence lies in her masterpiece, The Thin Place, which contains, among other eccentricities, passages told from the perspectives of a dog, a fish, a moose, and even a slow-growing lichen, each with its own unique vocabulary and voice. (The language of lichen is, for Davis, ‘repetitive and incantatory: manna star fold star. star star fold reindeer. fold fold fold fold‘.) Equally beguiling is her follow-up, Duplex, in which 1950s American suburbia is populated by robots, wizards, and airborne ‘heralds of melancholy’ known as ‘scows’. Davis’ nouns put recognisable sci-fi/fantasy stalwarts into the scene, but how are we to conceive of a ‘robot’ as a robot if the language outside that one label doesn’t imbue it with robotic qualities? Davis invests her sentences with details that often don’t agree with the connotations of her nouns, so that, instead of using precise and vivid language to depict a world stranger than ours, Davis’ language itself generates an estranging power.
The Silk Road is Davis at her best. I feel trepidation at the thought of describing it. I fall at the first hurdle of summary. Where does the novel take place? I can’t say that it ‘takes place’ at all: place, like language, is not a given for Davis, not to be taken up as a preconceived thing to serve a predetermined purpose. Let’s say that hints of a place extrude from Davis’ opaque style: an improbable labyrinth in the midst of an Arctic settlement, a possible safe haven from a plague that has wiped out much of the world. Seeking refuge in the labyrinth are the traces of a woman named Jee Moon—though her identity and her very existence may be a matter of conjecture—along with eight other sojourners who might be siblings, or else manifestations of a single splintered consciousness. Characters can hear each other’s thoughts in a way that allows their voices to interlink seamlessly from sentence to sentence. Abandon certainty, all ye who enter here: The Silk Road is prose as musical opus, treating identities as overlapping movements in a symphony of unstable selves.
From an indeterminate array of identities to the overdetermination of just one: I was gripped for days by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body. Ostensibly a true-crime narrative, the book revolves around the author’s time as U.S. attorney with a personal stake in the death row appeal of a convicted paedophile and child murderer. That’s a difficult subject for anyone to address, demanding exceptional sensitivity to language with various shades of moral import—and it’s especially difficult for Marzano-Lesnevich because, as she realises when she delves into the case, she herself has repressed childhood memories of having survived abuse at the hands of her grandfather.
Ultimately, though, The Fact of a Body isn’t about justice, either abstractly or in practice. It’s about one woman’s attempt to train herself, by an act of will, to look at another human being who has done terrible things and to unsee the limitations imposed on him by language. It’s a brave book, ethically fraught, that forfeits easy resolution in favour of a torturous adjustment to ambiguity. For Marzano-Lesnevich, while language certainly has the capacity to express truth, it also has the power to distort—and the language of the law most of all. The law gives names to convictions that often reduce a person’s entire character to a single word freighted with moral judgment. It gives names to crimes that elide the chaos of circumstantial experience, and it purports to define metaphysical concepts—not least ‘responsibility’—that are so riven with contradictions as to be virtually meaningless. Above all, it establishes causal connections between events in order to construct a story of culpability and consequence, and so to wedge real people into a streamlined narrative of ‘what happened’. This narrative may have an appearance of truth but, for Marzano-Lesnevich, it can never be true to life. Narrative as a form of causal explanation is always too clean to encompass the mess of life as lived, not least because the language of narrative is finally expedient, therefore reductive, therefore unable to honour the unfathomable complexity of the world it purports to describe.
That narrative is a double-edged sword—that to narrativise may be to liberate oneself from an experience while imprisoning oneself in an illusory construct—is something that I, too, have come to believe increasingly over the last few years. I cast a wary eye over anything that proposes a because: ‘this thing happened to me only because…’ or ‘I did that to them mostly because…’. How, then, to be satisfied by something like a novel? It’s not enough for a novelist to write a narrative that simply dramatises the pitfalls of narrativisation: that would feel like an act of bad faith. I have long craved something that not only undermines narrativisation, but also revels in the capacity of language to transmit unnarrativised sensory experience at every point along the spectrum from despondency to euphoria. Well, it turns out that a novel like this has been in the world for the last four years and all the time I just lacked the smarts to heed the acclaim.
Although I wasn’t won over by Eimear McBride’s celebrated début, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, her second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, left me stunned, speechless. It’s different—more expansive, more ambitious, more generous. It doesn’t so much tell a story as paint a scenario: a first-year drama student, transplanted from Ireland to London, falls for an actor twice her age. The events are mostly sexual, carnal and heart-wrenching, as the lovers struggle to strike up a connection by speaking around their emotions to avoid giving voice to their inner demons. For this reason, though, the resulting language is both acoustically askew and yet, somehow, melodious, as well as evocative of the intense physicality of being-in-the-world—of being embodied among others whose souls are beyond understanding. The cumulative effect is something like a Terrence Malick film in prose: glorious sensory input, as if merely to look upon a thing is to sanctify it. And on top of all this, McBride has the guts to break her narrator’s own spell by interleaving it with another, more equivocal, act of narration—one that makes a wretch of the impulse to conceive of oneself in narrative terms.
In retrospect, it’s odd to have set forth with such fervour on three books I first described as demanding. ‘Demanding’ usually suggests a drain on resources like time, attention, and patience. But then, for me, there was more to gain from answering the demands of these books: the dispelling of the emptiness after a long stint of work, and, more, a feeling of replenishment. Having downed tools as a writer, exhausted, I found myself reinvigorated most by books that made their well-worn raw materials—words—glimmer as if new.