January 3, 2014
Cynan Jones: The Dig
For 2014, I’m going to try some shorter reviews, which I see as the only alternative to giving up this blog altogether (work, family, etc). They may therefore be a little sketchier than usual. By way of preface to this review (non-publishing geeks, skip this bit), the reason I read this book is that it was the last book bought for Granta by Philip Gwyn Jones. He is a man who has published many fascinating writers, from Keith Ridgway to Magnus Mills, Nicola Barker to Eleanor Catton, as a result of which I came to trust his judgement. He left Granta last year, after making it one of the most reliably interesting publishers in the UK.
The Dig is a muscular, sinewy book. It is intensely physical and male: the only woman in it is dead and present solely in memories. Its seriousness, its attachment to the landscape and its language make Cormac McCarthy an obvious comparison, but it is entirely British (in fact Welsh) – perhaps it would be better to say that it reads like Cormac McCarthy meeting Ted Hughes down a dark country lane. (Perhaps it wouldn’t.)
It pits two men against one another, though they may not realise that they’re in opposition. Daniel is a young farmer whose wife died in a horrible accident: he is trying to carry on his commitment to the farm and his animals in the face of his grief. The other – unnamed, identified only as ‘the big man’ – is a poacher with a line in badger-baiting, fearful of being caught. Fear is a driver in the book – Daniel fears the big man, the big man fears the police – and in the book men generally are reduced to atavism, stripped of reason.
Their daily lives contrast as we read them in alternating scenes – Daniel caring for his sheep, birthing lambs, while the big man attempts to conceal the marks on a dead badger that will betray the bloodsport (“A little way down the road he turned round and came back and drove over the badger. Then he turned round and did it again.” And then “ground his foot down on the leg, and stamped over and over…”). The two men meet once, when Daniel is having removed from his land a large metal object referred to as ‘the shard’ – “a piece of lightning solidified there” – and the shard takes on an air of sinister mystery, an ominous agency like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Daniel feels “as if it had conjured” the big man.
I mentioned the language of The Dig earlier, and it is worth exploring. It is mostly blunt and plain, particularly when the brutal attacks on the badgers are being described (“Then they held up its head and held its jaw open with a jemmy and smashed the front teeth”), and the blankness of the descriptions only forces more power and emotion into the reading. Jones is fond of (yes) McCarthyesque strings of conjunctions:
He shifted the bunched carrier bags and the cleaning stuff and the shoe polish and dustpan and brush and box of nuts and hinges and screws and found an empty jar under the sink and opened it and smelled it and it had no smell and he smelled only the lanolin and straw and always the undertone of cattle on his hands.
The metaphors are carefully limited, in keeping with the characters’ experiences and knowledge, and in keeping with the sober tone (“when he got from the van it lifted and relaxed like a child relieved of the momentary fear of being hit”), and there is a semi-articulate quality to the words used through the men’s eyes, with a particular fondness for homemade nouns: Christmasness, surgicalness, automaticness. Among this we get an odd poetry – or poeticalness – which is not quite biblical but archaic: “all of these things of life awatered,” “that this thing is of purpose utmost.” All of this comes together to aid the seriousness of the telling. It works because the style is so intently pursued: one degree less, one percent more dilute, and it could cross the line into comedy.
Part of The Dig was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award in 2013. I read it at the time, along with the other shortlisted stories, and didn’t think it especially impressive. Here, in context, it makes sense, though it is still possible to see how it can stand alone (it forms Part 2 of the novel, concerning the big man and his son, and doesn’t explicitly refer to other parts of the book). Altogether The Dig is nasty, brutish and short, and thoroughly memorable. It ends horribly and inevitably, leaving marks in the brain that no amount of stamping or driving will easily erase.