Reviewed: Adam Mars-Jones, Box Hill: A Story of Low Self-esteem, Scribe, 2020
Box Hill is one of those tricky books: it disarms you with the candour of its narrator and the apparent simplicity of his story, and then unsettles you the further you reflect on it. It’s mischievous in that way. Its recollection of a kinky coming-of-age that kicks off in 1975 at Box Hill, 30 kilometres south-west of London, is tender and elegiac. Colin, the novel’s narrator, is conversational and self-deprecating. But his story is also unsettling: one critic calls it ‘an exquisitely discomfiting tale’, scattered with moments of ‘deadpan horror’. The author himself describes it in the book’s dedication as a ‘murky brew’. Whether you find its transgressions to be shocking, arousing or poignant—or all of the above—depends on the kind of reader you are. ‘I’m unsure,’ writes another critic, ‘whether to judge the closing line as haunting or innocuous.’ I, for one, am haunted.
The novel, like its narrator’s thirsty performance of an unexpected blowjob, puts out in the opening pages. The setting for this is a picturesque summit of the North Downs in Surrey, a ‘beauty spot overrun one day a week by motorcyclists and their beautiful machines’. Colin goes there on his 18th birthday because he enjoys looking at the bikers, because ‘it was my birthday, and I didn’t need a reason’. Roaming the ‘shaggy’ side of Box Hill, he tumbles by chance over the legs of a sleeping biker, Ray. The stumbled-upon Ray, six foot five with a ‘fine’, ‘chiselled’ face, scowls and then quickly takes control.
‘Tasty’ Ray, ‘a glossy catalogue illustration from Lewis Leathers’. In Colin’s memory, he is ‘drop dead gorgeous’, like a dream from a Tom of Finland drawing. Ray’s actions are deliberate and wildly assured, always ‘a step ahead’. By contrast, Colin, who left school because he was ‘short and fat and tired of being bullied’, is awkward and ‘slow’. ‘I was never a looker,’ he says. ‘I never had a waist.’
This first encounter sets the tone and the largely unspoken rules for their relationship. When Ray asks, ‘What am I going to do with you?’ and Colin answers, ‘Whatever you want’, it is one of the book’s rare examples of direct speech.
Colin’s ‘rough seduction’ begins immediately. Ray’s leather one-piece has a double zip that makes a ‘purring’ noise as he unzips from neck to navel. ‘It didn’t occur to me as I cowered hungrily in front of Ray that his unzipping had an element to it of ritual or of theatre,’ Colin reflects, but what is clear is what he is expected to do, and he knows he wants to do it. Ray uses one gloved hand to display his balls and the other to click his fingers, then nods.
In Colin’s eyes, Ray has a kind of seductive superpower. By the time he ‘flipped his cock forward and clicked his fingers again’, it is as if he ‘had clicked his fingers in the deepest part of my thinking, producing a brain event like the one that triggers a fit’. ‘Perhaps,’ Colin later wonders, ‘he was a hypnotist … [who] could just click his fingers and shut down some pathways in the brain, open a whole new lot up’, as if he ‘had paralysed my will’.
Ray takes Colin home, and he moves in the next day. ‘I still don’t understand how anyone could be so decisive. Ray just made up his mind there and then.’ Ray’s jacket hangs on a peg in the hallway, while Colin’s ‘own naff leather jacket … didn’t deserve any better than to lie on the floor’. Ray cuts off Colin’s hair, and makes him sleep on the floor. They spend six years together.
But first there are some harder shocks to receive. Back at Ray’s, the bucolic hillside seduction becomes ‘well, rape’. ‘I’d said he could do anything with me. I know that. But some things can’t be consented to … no-one could agree to being opened up so fiercely.’ Ray takes ‘possession’ of Colin via a long and ritualistic night of fucks and formalities. Colin loses ‘virginities I didn’t even know I had’. It is as if, in order to appreciate Ray’s ‘different, specialised way of communicating’, the reader must endure the ceremonious breaking of Ray’s ‘willpower’ over Colin three times in 24 hours. At one point it feels as if Ray ‘was going to kill me with his cock’—intercourse without even ‘a smear of the candle-grease that his leathers benefited from’. But the pain passes swiftly, the sex becoming ‘a rhythm and the rhythm was pleasure’.
If some of Box Hill’s more brutal shocks are front-loaded, part of that experience for Colin—and for the reader—is in full surrender to Ray, and to the fast-moving mastery of Mars-Jones’s narrative. For this to proceed, we first need to be taken, but the worst will quickly pass; ‘the hurting and the kissing were both over by the end of that first night’.
All the while, Colin continues to compare himself to his new master. Admiring Ray while he sleeps, he sneaks a look at his midsection under the covers: ‘It was hard to believe that they were equivalent parts of similar creatures.’ Earlier, by the tree at Box Hill, the sight of Ray’s sweat was ‘a sheen on him, the finishing touch to beauty’, whereas Colin’s sweat was ‘no more than a waste product’. Both Colin and Ray have blue eyes, but while Ray’s are ‘a strong colour’, Colin’s are a ‘mucky blue’, ‘wobbly rabbit eyes’.
The mystique of difference is central to the dominant–submissive romance, and the book has fun with exaggerated contrasts. Ray walks like a king, his gait advertising ‘a huge assurance, an authority that radiated from him with every casual step’. Colin, on the other hand, feels himself ‘scurrying after him on legs that seemed stumpier than before, anxious to keep up’.
While one might sense that Mars-Jones enjoyed devising some of the less subtle dom–sub disparities, it seems important that they stray occasionally into the absurd, into ‘overvaluation’. This feature of being in love, first described by Freud in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), is when the love object is overvalued (überschätzt) or idealised. Freud defines overvaluation as an ‘appreciation [that] extends to the whole body of the sexual object’ and into the ‘psychological sphere’. In instances of overvaluation, libidinal investment in the object of desire is so highly concentrated that the loved one becomes, literally, a site of worship. The lover, deluded as they are, doesn’t necessarily recognise that they have overrated the loved one, which allows the glorified lover to remain an object of exaltation. As in Colin’s case, this may make the subject dependent and submissive towards the love object.
If Colin’s astonishment at Ray’s magic wanders, even with the benefit of hindsight, into the territory of fantasy, it may be because he’s suffering from overvaluation in its more exaggerated form. Of Ray’s eyes, again, he muses:
Every time I saw them … Ray’s eyes were bluer than I remembered … I wondered if his eyes weren’t actually luminous, so that blue built up behind the lids while he was asleep. And I’d try to be awake before him, so that I could catch the moment when the pent-up blue spilled out.
In another cute example that also indulges in a laugh at the expense of the theatre of sadomasochism, Colin marvels at what Ray can achieve while wearing gloves (‘He’s the only person I’ve ever seen who could turn a page wearing leather gloves and not fumble’). An impressive talent, but how common is it to wear gloves while reading a book? It’s funny, but in a way that makes Colin’s desire seem less eccentric, less perverse, for surely many readers can recall idealising an infatuated other in this manner? Many can surely also recognise feeling as if they don’t merit the fineness they behold: ‘Ray’s smile was beautiful, but it made me uneasy. I couldn’t see what I had done to deserve it.’
Another way of saying this is that Colin has low self-esteem—not a huge revelation given the novel’s highly unmarketable subtitle, which was relegated in my edition to the title page, and thus hidden from cover and spine. Colin’s self-abnegation is relentless, and the comparisons with Ray—‘He who could have had anyone’—only heightens it. Indeed, how could Ray even take a second look at him?
One view of self-esteem is that it is relational, part of a global scale of (self-)evaluating personhood. In this way, low self-esteem would be constituted as much by the overvaluation of others as by low self-regard. Both in sadomasochistic and coming-of-age romance narratives, an idealised other is required to imagine the self, and to stimulate the flourishing of desire. Basking in the glow—or the will, or cruelty—of the idealised lover may bestow pleasure: ‘It felt wonderful just standing next to Ray, standing doing nothing, and watching the way the world changed around him.’ Or it may stimulate self-critique: ‘If somebody had held up a mirror in front of me at that moment, I would have immediately realised I had nothing to offer Ray. Ray had no possible need of this blob.’
That aspect of Colin (‘doomed to make unflattering comparisons’) is partly what enables him to submit fully to Ray. The relationship between Colin’s parents, introduced early in the novel, offers some clues to why he might seek that. Among other things, Ray offers something that Colin’s mutually devoted parents (‘a textbook perfect couple’) have locked him out of: a domestic life that revolves entirely around him and not them.
One of the many turns of the screw in Mars-Jones’s strange, twisted novel is the gradual emergence of Colin’s agency. Towards the end, he reflects that while ‘Ray’s charisma was real, and I wasn’t the only one to feel it’, it was he, Colin, who ‘went along with it’: ‘It’s only exaggerating a little to say that I knew what I was doing when I fell over those long and insolently extended legs. I was ready. I had no real idea of what I was ready for, but still I was ready.’ It becomes harder to imagine an entirely naive Colin, who simply tumbled unwittingly into the role of Ray’s submissive and spent years stuck there, bewildered and acquiescent.
As for what Colin offers Ray, this can only be speculated on. In a narrative filtered through overvaluation and low self-esteem, Ray can only emerge as a vaguely Nietzschean superhero, a pornographic Übermensch. But this is largely how Colin prefers it. And while adult Colin wrestles with a number of unknowns about Ray, and with unknowns about how their relationship comes to an end—he has no idea what Ray did for a living, nor even his surname—he ultimately prefers it that way. ‘It’s a mistake to think friends need to know everything about each other,’ he concludes. And when he does, finally, settle on an explanation for the mysteries of the final third of the novel—‘the only theory that makes sense’—it’s a preposterous one. Colin cannot quite permit his mind to resolve the enigma of Ray in anything resembling normality.
If Box Hill quickly takes you in through rough hypnosis, a bewitching sequence of commanding finger clicks, even more masterful are the subtle tricks it leaves you with. Mischievous and mysterious; ‘the household’, Colin reflects, ‘was simpler than I thought, but also more complicated’. The overall effect is a fantasy recalled that is wildly expansive, but on matters of desire and agency, mercurial and resistant to fixed interpretation.
Dion Kagan is a writer, researcher and the author of Positive Images: Gay Men and the Culture of ‘Post-Crisis’.