July 5, 2012
Keith Ridgway: Hawthorn & Child
Before I begin writing about this book, I have an interest to declare. I have been thanked by the author in the acknowledgements. I presume (I don’t like to ask) that this is because of my previous championing of his work on this blog. I am therefore at risk of seeming either ungrateful for the nod (I’m not), or as though I have a vested interest in the book’s success. I don’t. Well, I do: I think it’s the best new book I’ve read this year, and so I want it to do well in order that Ridgway has the means and time to write another.
He dreamed he was sleeping, and Child was driving.
Hawthorn & Child was originally subtitled, on its publisher’s website, ‘A Set of Misunderstandings’. The misunderstandings might begin in trying to define it. It’s a series of stories which is really a novel, about two London police detectives and the people they encounter. It begins with an unsolvable mystery, when a young man is shot from a passing car on a quiet north London street. The brief information provided by the victim as he lies on the hospital table (“They poked and peered at the body. They tubed the body and they hooked it up. They shifted and bound the body”) becomes the bedrock of a police investigation, a grand structure spun around no more than air. This is a book which is all about the details: the ones we don’t know, the ones we invent to replace them, and the exquisite ones Ridgway provides us with along the way. Details, like this brief phone exchange between Hawthorn and his brother, which speaks of years in a couple of lines:
—How’s the thing?
Hawthorn made a face and looked out of the window.
The imprecision of language is everywhere. Here, Hawthorn’s brother wants to ask but can’t bring himself to be specific. Elsewhere, when investigating the shooting, Hawthorn and Child take a witness’s response to a question (“Not really”) as an opening, when really it’s just a loose end. They are desperate to make things fit. “We usually don’t decide anything about things that don’t fit. They just don’t fit. So we leave them out.” In this, they are like all of us, even when we are reading this book and trying to join together the pieces of the narrative. (Ridgway: “We want to tell ourselves and our days and our lives as stories, and these things are not stories.”)
In some of the sections, the title characters are central. Child finds himself in a hostage negotiation with a young man who seems to be in a religious cult of one, and whose sense of identity is mangled. Hawthorn, straining for human contact, finds it – sort of – in a clever sequence which cuts between a riot and an orgy, and where it’s not always possible to see which is which.
There are certain things Hawthorn wants to do. There are things he doesn’t want to do. The line between these things tickles him, like a bead of sweat down his back.
In other places, Hawthorn and Child are merely in the background, seen at a distance, or referred to. Ridgway gets around having to clunkingly name them by giving Hawthorn distinctive features that can be described by others: he cries a lot (“How’s the thing?”) and there’s something, perhaps related, wrong with his face. “His face was crooked.” “Like he was peeking through a keyhole.” “He looks somehow off kilter.” The risk here is that you get something like David Mitchell’s scar identifier that joined the characters in Cloud Atlas, which looked tricksy and needless. Cloud Atlas, in fact, is not a bad starting point for comparison with Hawthorn & Child. With his book, Mitchell wanted to go further than Calvino had in If on a winter’s night a traveller, by finishing all the stories he began. He did it, and the cumulative nimbleness was impressive; but I felt there was something missing in the heart region, and I wonder now whether the resolution of the stories contributed to it. Resolving a story can involve the author in so much contortion and knot-tying that the ugliness of the ending spoils the beauty that went before. Ridgway has been, I think, braver than Mitchell. The stories here are unresolved — “holding the reader down and anti-climaxing all over their face,” I heard it put — but they are not incomplete. There is nothing missing, no sense that the stories peter out. The narrative pull within each one is strong, and they all leave you wanting more. What more could we ask for?
He’s completely sane. Except for this thing. It’s like all his weirdness is contained in this. In you or me weirdness is spread out over everything. Half an inch of weirdness. Over everything. With him, it’s just this one thing that’s weird. Two foot deep.
Underlying all this, or stretching over it, is the story of Hawthorn and Child themselves. This is not a buddy cop story. They are on the trail of a gangster, Mishazzo. They work together, with contrasting approaches. Hawthorn is unsubtle, Child more solicitous: he gets on with people more easily; is happier, too. In their work, Child works things out, separates the possible from the fanciful. Hawthorn doesn’t want to exclude the fanciful. He is searching for meaning, for something to put in the gaps. He thinks about things and people that might explain other things and other people to him. He “thought about men, various men, whom he moved about his mind experimentally like furniture.” These enquiries are futile, though that is their purpose. A narrator of one of the stories says, “Knowing things completes them. Kills them. They fade away, decided and over and forgotten. Not knowing sustains us.” That narrator, from the story ‘How We Ran the Night’, is thoroughly unpleasant, and somehow frightening. (“I think of Trainer hanging in his attic. It must be worth knowing, what makes a man do that.”) There is a fair amount of shiver-inducing nastiness in Hawthorn & Child, including as many ugly deaths as you might expect in a book about policemen. Yet there is tenderness all the way through, not least in the grudging pity I felt for Hawthorn. His tragedy in a minor key makes him one of the strongest fictional creations I’ve encountered in some time.
He dreamed that he slept in a house that moved, and that was not his, and that was not now.
Hawthorn & Child exhaustively answers the question: What do you want from a book? There are likeable characters too: in ‘Goo Book’, a story of the thoughts that lie too deep to say in Mishazzo’s driver’s love affair (first published in The New Yorker); and in ‘Rothko Eggs’ (first published in Zoetrope All-Story). There are plots and stories, page-turning and teasing. There is innovation — it is structurally bold, and eye-opening in subject matter (a premiership referee who sees ghosts would fit that bill). It kicks the reader out of their comfort zone. It has lines that zing and lines that hum, as in the voice-driven ‘Marching Songs’, which as a sustained piece of fictional prose, could hardly be bettered. (Could it? Read it yourself.)
I believe, though I cannot prove, that my illness is due directly to the perverted Catholicism and megalomania of Mr Tony Blair, former Prime Minister, whom I met once, whose hand I physically shook (at which point he assaulted me), and who, if you should mention my name to him, will tell you that he met me, or that he did not meet me, or that he cannot recall. Because he has all the answers.
This is a book which I read twice before reviewing it, to unpick the connections but also because I selfishly wanted the pleasure again. And now as I thumb the pages to write this, and get nervous with excitement at seeing the best bits again, this time both fresh and familiar, I wonder if I can resist a third go. Perhaps I am mad. Perhaps, as Martin Amis described himself in relation to Bellow, I am Keith Ridgway’s perfect reader and nobody else will get the same thrill I have from this book. But let me tell you something.
I know that something has gone wrong. I know that the fault is visible. You can discern it in everything I say to you. In most of what I say to you. In how I say it. I know this. I am cracked like ice. I know this. But listen. Listen to me. This is important. Beneath the fault there is solid ground. Beneath the ice. Under all the cracks. Under all the cracks there is something that is not broken.