This Census Taker
Warning: plot spoil.
This was a short novel - Doug's suggestion - which most of us found utterly compelling, but which ultimately left us puzzled. Set in an imaginary place and time, it opens stunningly as the narrator presents the picture of a boy running from an isolated house on a hill to the town below, his hands covered in something he believes is blood, but which is not blood, a boy whom the narrator says was himself. Arriving where the watching townspeople are waiting, he cries that his mother has killed his father. Right away it is clear that this novel - in which the boy is referred to sometimes as he, sometimes as I, and once or twice in the second person - is about identity and uncertainty. His father, we soon discover, has not been killed. So what did the boy witness? He himself isn't sure. His mother has disappeared. Was it that his father killed his mother? His father is violent and kills animals, battering them to death with his hands, and drops the bodies into a deep pit in a cave; the boy suspects that he has overheard his father killing visitors, customers who come up from a town clearly wrecked by a past war and industrial decline to buy the keys he makes, keys that have seemingly magical properties. The boy is deeply afraid of his father and makes attempts to run away to the town and its strange population of homeless children, only to be brought back by the town officials. Yet his father is consistently gentle towards him. And his mother, who appears to have left a note saying that she is going away, was undemonstrative and insular. And there are hints that both she and the father have been sleepers, the father having come from another country. Meanwhile, there are strange double gunshots on the mountain and mysterious figures half-appearing and then disappearing in the mist. Finally, in the father's absence a census taker with a double-barrelled gun arrives at the house. He hails from the boy's father's country and is briefed to record all those from that country living here (although the father will say that the census takers, the 'tallymen', are supposed to have gone). Taken by the boy to the pit in which he suspects his mother's body has been thrown, the census taker lowers himself down into it, but it is never revealed what he finds. He then takes the boy away with him to be his apprentice, at which point it becomes clear to the reader that 'this census taker' refers to the narrator himself. The novel ends inconclusively, with the census taker and the boy descending the mountain away from the boy's home.
We were very taken by the evocative mystery of all this and the vividness of the imagined world, and I was thrilled by the language, which is lyrical and muscular with archaisms and resonant neologisms - a wood is a 'boscage' for instance. Unfortunately however we felt the need to work the mysteries out, but were unable to do so. The novel it seems is also about writing and recording. The narrator explains early on in the novel that he is tasked to write three books, each with a different purpose. The first is a 'book of numbers', a record presumably (a census), intended for everyone 'though almost no one wants it or would know how to read it', the third will be a book of secrets, written only for himself. The second is the book he is writing now (and that we are reading). It's for others to read and is 'performance', the mentor has told him, but it can still hold secrets and send hidden messages. What all this signified precisely, however, we were unclear. We were full of questions: what precisely is this novel saying about writing? What value are we meant to assign to these different aspects of writing/recording? Is creating records the instrument of repressive governments, as implied in the catechism of the narrator's predecessor (who, significantly, has gone missing)?:
The Hope is So:
Count Entire Nation. Subsume Under Sets.
Take Accounts. Keep Estimates. Realise
Reach Our Government's Ultimate Ends.
If so, what are we to make of the census taker being the boy's saviour, and the boy's becoming a census taker in turn? Are the father and mother examples of those who slip such repressions? But then isn't the father violent and cruel? There is much about language and communication: the father isn't fluent in the language of the town; the boy, taught to read inadequately by his mother, and whose viewpoint we share for most of the time, is cut off from much understanding of the world. We were quite clear that the novel was about uncertainty, but what was it saying about uncertainty? And what was it saying about identity? The first pages promise an exciting exploration of the fluidity of identity and the uncertainties of storytelling, but none of us felt that we had come away with any clear message about that.
I had turned to look at reviews to see what others had made of the book. Most reviewers, impressed as we were by the language and the author's imagination, seemed to avoid the matter of interpretation (as if, possibly, they felt there must be an interpretation, but that they hadn't actually got it), but at least one reviewer castigated those who would expect a meaning or a message, seeming to imply that it was a bourgeois requirement. This was a notion that we had in fact heard expressed elsewhere, mainly by writers in writing groups. However, the fact is that everyone in our group did want to be able to take a meaning from the book, and we discussed this matter. We acknowledged that, as John pointed out, there are authors, such as Beckett, who refuse to say what their work means, and whose work defies single interpretation, but their works are in fact open to interpretation. So why do we want a meaning when we see a play or read a book? It is because, we decided, we want to come away with a sense of having been moved on in our insights. Reading and writing were otherwise mere diversions, we felt, and we preferred a more serious purpose.
We did not however make the assumption that China Mieville did not intend a meaning - everything about the book seems heavily weighted with significance - and Mark expressed the view that the novel was simply flawed, and that Mieville had dropped the balls he had thrown in the air.
This book of linked episodes won the Edge Hill Prize for short stories, and as one of the three judges that year (along with Sam Jordison and Tessa Hadley) I of course admire it greatly and was eager to share it with the group.
It takes a large cast of characters connected by flights, each section dealing with a character only briefly or loosely connected with the character in the previous section. It's a short book, and the sections are fairly brief, but manages to convey huge psychological complexity, and to make the situation of each character moving. One thing that really moved me was the way the book portrayed the paradox of the interconnectedness of this global world - and of us all to each other - and our simultaneous aloneness with our personal dilemmas. Another thing I found very moving was the changes in viewpoint and perspective, the difference between how characters are seen by others on the one hand, and their inner lives and personal reality on the other. An early instance of this concerns a pilot: in the section dedicated to him we learn, as he flies a cargo plane from Dakar to Sao Paulo, of the death of his sister when they were children, and the way that, clearly, it has affected him for good, and see his vulnerability and his sensitivity. The next episode opens with the viewpoint of a young female journalist about to take an important flight to Toronto and desperate to get rid of the man with whom she had a one-night stand the night before - a desperation we are made to share along with her anxieties about her commission. It is a moment before we realise - and a little shock when we do - that this is the pilot we came to know in the previous section, seen through her eyes as a piece of inconvenient meat she needs to get out of her bed.
Doug, Mark and John very much agreed with me, Mark in particular saying he found the book quite brilliant (and not, he said, just because of his past career as a flight attendant). John said he didn't understand how Szalay managed to make the characters, so briefly dealt with in terms of physical space in the book, so convincing and moving. I said I'd noticed that often when we share a character's point of view here, that character is not named, which makes for psychological veracity - people don't name themselves when they are lost in their inner thoughts, and so it's distancing to name them (which a lot of authors don't seem to have noticed!) The main thing that makes the book so moving, I think, is the way Szalay adopts the techniques of both short stories and novels (the book has in fact been marketed as each, at different times). It uses the short story techniques of economy: implication rather than explication, and omissions and jumps that create moving juxtapositions (connections and contrasts), while also embracing a novelistic overall story arc and forward motion, culminating in a satisfying novelistic link to the beginning.
Doug did say however that the one thing he found unconvincing about the book was that ending, which he found artificial and forced. I have to say that on this, my third or fourth reading of the book, it did strike me that there was a psychological element missing from the last section, which did have the potential for making it seem a little manipulated (I won't say what it is, in order not to plot-spoil), but I must also say that the first two or three times I read the book it never occurred to me, and, apart from that psychological aspect, I still found moving the way the general direction was steered back to the beginning, underlining the theme of our disconnectedness yet surprising connectedness. Mark and John I think felt the same.
Our only real dissenter was Ann, who I'm afraid had found the whole thing too schematic. She had guessed right from the start that the book was going to take us in flights around the world back to the same point (and had quickly flicked through to see that this was the case) and couldn't read it without a sense of the sketched plan Szalay must have drawn up to follow, with all the obvious representative characters ticked off, right down to the Syrian refugee. None of the rest of us had had this reaction. Personally, I couldn't see anything wrong with an author having such a scheme: I saw it merely as the openly disclosed framework for something much more subtle in terms of themes and narrative surprises.
Doug said he didn't think it was a novel, though, as you could read the stories entirely in isolation. Someone else disagreed that that was the case: the stories were much richer if read in sequence through the prisms of the previous stories, which of course is how you read a novel. Doug said however it didn't have the feel of a novel, it felt like something else. I commented that the novel has always been subject to change and innovation, its very name meaning new. In any case, as with Tove Jansson's The Summer Book, which we read earlier this year, I thought that, apart from the pressures of marketing, from a literary point of view there was no need to categorise the book: it was what it was, very successfully in the view of most of us.
As I Lay Dying
John, who had suggested this book, and had read it more than once before, said that he thought it was a truly great book (in the sense of its literary stature), but that he both loved and hated it.
It is the story of the Bundrens, a family of poor farmers of the deep American south, exeriencing the death of their wife and mother Addie, and then taking an arduous journey to bury her, according to her wishes, in Jefferson from where she came. They are delayed by various difficulties including floods and a fire, and the body in the coffin on the wagon begins to rot as vultures wheel overhead. The whole expedition - and the family rivalries and the characters' various additional ulterior motives for taking the journey - is conveyed in a series of multiple vernacular interior monologues: the thoughts, observations and memories of the family members and others they encounter.
Clearly a landmark book in the advent of Modernism in the early twentieth-century, it thus eschews entirely the prop of an objective narrator, and relies on the characters revealing themselves and each other through their inner stream-of-consciousness thoughts, often unreliable and incomplete in understanding, and leaving readers having to piece together the story and its implications for themselves.
John said he loved this experimentalism and in particular the stress on psychology, which is rendered with such searing insight, but it was certainly a novel that worked the reader hard, both for the reason stated above and because the southern vernacular was very hard to penetrate, particularly before you got used to it. As Doug and I interjected, some of the sentences seem at first impenetrable, even unfinished, until you attune to their logic, particularly as part of Faulker's project here is to render with veracity the way our thoughts can be sometimes muddled, incomplete and inconsistent. It took me a second reading to understand these sentences from the only section in the voice of the (more literate, ex-schoolteacher) Addie:
I knew that [the word] fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride who never had the pride. I knew that it had been, not that they [ie the schoolchildren she had taught] had dirty noses, but that we had used one another by words like spiders dangling by their mouths from a beam, swinging and twisting and never touching.'
Addie's preoccupation in this whole section is, significantly, about the uselessness of words, and their inability truly to represent experience, or, as the second sentence conveys, to create connections between people. (At one point there is a gap in the text illustrating the impossibility for her of expressing one particular feeling). For this reason, having initially thought that the beginning of the second sentence was referring back to the previous sentence ('it' being fear or pride or both), I then thought I was reading an unfinished sentence, as apparently indicated by that comma, interrupted by a new thought about the schoolchildren. Only after a double-take did I realise that 'it' in the second sentence referred to the reason (for her hating the children and beating them), which wasn't, as she had once thought, their dirty noses, but because she couldn't connect with them through the impossibility of words.
Everyone agreed that the book was hard work, so that no one could say they had actually enjoyed it, but all found it extremely interesting. We felt we really needed to read it again, sure that we would get a lot more out of it a second time. (There were plot points about which some of us were still unclear, and ironies that, having resolved them in our discussion, we felt we could relish better a second time around; John said he'd enjoyed the book best on this his third or so reading.) Another thing that made the going harder for the reader at the start was the sheer number of characters (fifteen I think in all), most of them speaking early on. We all agreed that the early part of the book, as these characters are allowed to establish themselves, was slow, and that it was later that the book really got going with some pace. (Doug said that he had started the book years ago but had not got past the early part, and I, who thought I had read the book before, must have done the same, as I had absolutely no recognition of the more dramatic events of the rest of the novel.)
Someone suggested that another problem was that the voices weren't all that distinct from each other, and our initial reaction was to agree, but when we talked about it, it seemed that perhaps we were seeing them too much through their vernacular, and that within it there were indeed distinctions: Addie, as I have commented, is more literate and speaks/thinks in more abstract terms, as do the doctor, Peabody, and the Whitfield the priest. The language of Darl, the second of Addie's five children, more insightful, observant and imaginative than the rest and given the greatest number of sections, often takes a poetic turn; Cash, her first-born, a carpenter who has made her coffin, is distinguished (before the end of the novel) by being a man of few words, his only two early sections consisting of a short list and a single paragraph respectively; the youngest, Vardaman, the only non adult of the children, is strikingly distinct in his muddled thought and language. Those of the only girl, Dewey Dell, begin as fairly straightforward, but turn convoluted and disconnected as she becomes emotionally desperate. Anse, the feckless father, is distinguished by his repetitive self-justifications and whining manipulations, contrasting with the down-to-earth voices of the farmers who help the family out on their travels. (Jewel, the most different of Addie's children, taller than the rest and filled with a distinctive vicious streak, is given no monologue of his own and thus remains to the reader the outsider that the plot will reveal he is within the family.)
We had a fairly intense discussion about the fact that, although the characters speak chiefly in the vernacular, and although a main point seems to be the difficulty for them of articulating their private reality, they quite frequently come out with sophisticated concepts and insights expressed in abstract Latinate vocabulary that was unusual even to us. Darl describes the motion of the wagon as they travel as 'so dreamlike as to be uninferent of progress' and Dewey Dell as 'watchful and repudient' (my italics). Even Dewey Dell, whose outlook is simpler, calls the cow's breathing 'stertorous'. Most people felt that this detracted from the authenticity of the voices, Doug in particular finding that it jarred, and that although it can perhaps be accepted as poetic/novelistic licence in a novel so groundbreaking at the time of its publication, it wouldn't be accepted in a novel written today - the voices would be expected to be much more accurately realistic. Mark objected that he didn't see how Faulker could have done it any other way: if such characters don't have the language to express their own feelings, then the author has to provide it. Doug and I said, But that doesn't work in interior monologue mode, since an interior monologue is meant to replicate a character's thought (and language) - it just makes it feel inauthentic, and brings in for the reader a sense of the author telling the story, after all. Mark said again that he didn't see how it could be done otherwise. Personally, I think it can be done, although it is one of the hardest things to do in writing, and I thought there was an instance in the book that illustrated how: Addie talks of how, trapped in her unhappy premarital life, she lay in bed and heard 'the wild geese going north and their honking coming faint and high and wild out of the wild darkness'. This is a concrete visceral image/symbol that left me with a far more vivid and lasting sense of her longing and feelings of being trapped, left behind and cut off, than any of the abstract musings of her section could or did.
Quite often, the text will break suddenly for a short space into italics, and Doug said he hadn't been able to work out the point of this. I said I'd noticed that in the cases of Vardaman and Dewey Dell, the italics tended to represent troubling thoughts that kept recurring to them, often in a non sequitur way. Doug agreed, but pointed out rightly that there wasn't consistency throughout the novel over this, and that it wasn't clear what the point was in Darl's sections, for instance.
Much of the commentary we have come across finds the book fundamentally tragi-comic, but none of us found much in it to laugh at. We did all find funny the moment where the neighbouring farmer Tull tells how the Bundrens laid Addie the wrong way round in the coffin so that they could splay out her dress in the wider space meant for her shoulders, and I and others found funny the self-justifying section of the priest, Whitfield, who has felt that he should confess a sin to the Bundrens but argues himself out of the need for it now that Addie is dead. And the very ending of the book - the last sentence - is very funny as well as grim, and, we all agreed, quite brilliant. Mostly, however, we found the situation of the family gruellingly tragic.
All in all, although most of us said that we probably wouldn't have taken up this novel out of choice, we were really glad to have read it and found it very interesting indeed.
Lean Fall Stand
Having read together both Jon McGregor's first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things and in particular his magnificent Reservoir 13, our group have been fans of his work, and were eager to read this novel when Mark suggested it. There, sure enough, was the wonderful prose - lean yet vivid - which we all very much appreciated and enjoyed; overall, however, we were a little disappointed.
The book is divided into three parts. The first, and most distinct from the others, Lean, was inspired by a 2004 trip McGregor made to the Antarctic, as part of a Writers and Artists Programme run by the British Antarctic Survey. Set in the Antarctic, it deals with a tragedy that occurs when two novice Antarctic researchers and their experienced leader 'Doc' all become separated from each other in a sudden snowstorm and Doc suffers a stroke that renders him incapable of saving the situation. The second and longest part, Fall, deals with Doc's painful recovery back home in the UK, and chiefly takes the viewpoint of the wife who has lived to some extent independently from a husband spending several months of every year away in the Antarctic, but must now make sacrifices in her academic career to care for him. The third, Stand, consists mainly of scenes from the Aphasia Group they attend as Doc reaches back for the language he has lost.
There was no doubt amongst us that the most compelling section was the first. Many have pointed out that this section has the tension of an adventure story. There is a sense of dire urgency as the two young researchers try to make contact through a failing radio system, short separate sections formally embodying their separation. There is impending doom in the flashback moments, as in this section describing the comings and goings of researchers over the years:
... The bodies came, and they went... The ice slipped and broke into the water... The daylight was silence... The bodies breathed in their narrow wooden shelter. The weather closed in again... There was movement in the water, and the sky darkened above the glacier.
The descriptions of the Antarctic landscape are stunning:
The night-time was no such thing. The continent kept its face towards the sun and the ice slowly softened. The mountains climbed sharply away from the valley and the glaciers tongued down towards the sea. In the crevasses that ran across the lower mountain slopes the light fell bluely down, dimming towards the depths.
While everyone in our group agreed that the book was a very quick read, the change to a different kind of tension - that of Doc's slow recovery and his wife's adjustment to her new situation - was a good deal less compelling, certainly by comparison, and the scenes with the Aphasia Group were repetitive, if necessarily so due to the nature of the members' language problems. John said that partly what had made the book a quick read for him was that he had found himself skipping these latter sections. The prose itself in the latter two sections embodies a loss of tension: it becomes much more conventional, indeed in the last section somewhat workaday, and thus less emotive. One problem for me, I said, was that it was hard to become invested in Doc's recovery since he had come over in the first section as a not particularly attractive character - fogeyish and self-centred - and indeed, it was his irresponsibility and maybe hubris that paved the way for the tragedy. Others agreed. His stroke occurring during the ensuing crisis detracts from his culpability, and his resulting loss of language is a protection for him against the truth coming out. It was hard as a result not to feel that he was unfairly getting away with it all - especially as the first section had established our sympathies firmly with the young men in dire trouble. Towards the end of the book, the members of the Aphasia Group stage a show for relatives, with Doc's situation, which had begun so dramatically in such dramatic surroundings, as the finale; Doug said he expected Doc, having regained some language facility, to make a dramatic public confession - and others said the same - but no such thing happens.
What we so admire in Remarkable Things and Reservoir 13 is McGregor's ability to create a framing panoramic view of a community while homing in on the personal viewpoints of its members, creating an effect we find very moving. In this book, however, we found no such unifying principle, and felt that, as Mark said, it fell apart into its three sections, and it was hard to tell what it was really about. Was it about Antarctica? No, we soon leave Antarctica behind. (I said that I thought there was a hugely missed opportunity in Antarctica as a symbol for the freezing of language - or at least, I didn't find any consciousness of that in the novel.) Is it about Doc's recovery? But then the viewpoint in the second section is chiefly that of his wife Anna: is it about Anna's personal drama? But then she too comes across as unsympathetic - as detached as her children once or twice accuse her of being. Is it about aphasia in general, as the last section seems to be? This last section is the only point at which the novel deals like McGregor's previous novels with anything like a community, but the viewpoints we share here, apart from that of the observing Anna, are those of the course leader and the language therapist, and those very briefly. While in the first section we enter the newly traumatised head of Doc and share his language confusion (which is cleverly and empathically done), in the last section we are simply objective observers of aphasia sufferers, and the scope for empathy is much less. McGregor's ability to switch viewpoints is used to brilliant effect in his previous novels, but I felt that here for much of the time it seemed random and contributed to our sense of lack of focus. In fact, I said, even in the first section, in which the narrative enters alternately the minds of the men in danger, I found it hard to quite fully engage with them, due to not knowing anything much about them before we are in the thick of their crisis.
Ann said that she found it uunconvincing that the leaders of teams in the Antarctic should act with such irresponsibility (there is another incident of even greater irresponsibility in the past, in which one of Doc's colleagues died): she felt sure that in such extreme conditions things would be much stricter. Finally, Doug commented that McGregor's technique of seeming to begin with one kind of story - in Reservoir 13 a conventional murder story and here an adventure story - and then confounding the reader's expectations by turning it into another, more serious kind of story, had worked brilliantly in the former novel, but hadn't worked here. Of all of us, Clare was the most positive towards the book, saying that she had read it in one sitting and had in fact quite enjoyed it, though adding that she had been in the mood for a quick and perhaps not too serious read.