September 19, 2012
Regular readers of this blog will not need to be reminded that I think Keith Ridgway’s latest novel, Hawthorn & Child, is one of the best books of the year, perhaps of many years – that, in workplace appraisal terms, it stands head and shoulders above its peers. Having spent far too much time on Twitter urging people to read it, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that almost all the responses I’ve seen have agreed with me. As I think this is not the first great book Ridgway has written, I jumped at the opportunity to ask him about his work.
How did the novel find its form? When and how did it become clear to you that this set of stories was a book predominantly about Hawthorn and Child? And when that realisation came, did the writing then get easier, or harder? Did it feel like you were heading for a destination, or still feeling your way?
I wanted to write a book of fragments. Many small fragments that would be impossible to put together – like a shattered novel in a bag. I didn’t even think of it as a novel, just a book. There were working titles like 78 Pieces Of Shit, and 54 Demonstrable Fictions. At some point it became 38 Marching Songs. Then just Marching Songs. Eventually it became Hawthorn & Child. In all that reduction there was a failure to do what I’d wanted to do. Fragments kept on fitting together, cohering in a really annoying way, wanting to become stories. So I went from 78 to 8. That’s all loss. But the tension between what I wanted and what I was doing became interesting in itself. H&C is, without being, I hope, too maudlin about it, a book about the failure to write a much better, much more interesting book. At some point I fixed on these two detectives – who came to me originally just as comic ghosts, turning up repeatedly and ineffectively to haunt the scene of some catastrophe or other – and I recognised myself – the writer – in their feeble interventions. And then I realised that I was writing a police novel. Which was a shock. But at least then I could play with that. And the writing became a little easier I suppose, though of course it never really does, you just shift the difficulty slightly. As for a destination – no, I never had one. That much at least I never lost. Or found. Or what have you.
You’ve spoken before about resistance to telling our days and lives as stories, and of our addiction to narrative. Yet most of the stories in Hawthorn & Child have strong narrative drive, so they satisfy this addiction up to a point. Are you lulling the reader into a false sense of security? Do you want them to want to know if Hawthorn is going to be OK?
I don’t know what I want. I suppose I want them to feel something of what I feel – that stories are subjective creations, personal things. That there isn’t really anything like a shared story – or a shared experience – in reality, and that novels for the most part lie about this. The writer of a novel is assumed, and assumes herself, to be an authority on the world of her novel. And I dispute that. Certainty is the enemy of understanding. And I want what I write to be attempts at understanding. So I am filled with uncertainty about everything that seems to happen in anything I write. It’s very difficult to get that on to the page without either inducing a sort of crisis of perception for myself, or worse, boring the reader. So I’m not lulling, there’s no ‘false’. I don’t know what’s going on. I want to know if Hawthorn is going to be OK. But I have no idea whether he will be or not. Or whether I really care. I’m not sure I like him very much. He’s sort of pathetic. But the important thing for me, as the writer of this, is that he feels like he might be a real character, in the sense that he embodies emotions and attitudes and failures and neuroses that we are familiar with. And he’s a creep. A self-pitying creep. Which is what most of us I think fear that we are.
Hawthorn & Child begins and ends with chapters that foreground the relationship between the two detectives (I’ve heard a couple of people compare them to Bill James’ police procedurals). I could have read a whole book just of the dialogue between Hawthorn and Child. Do you read crime fiction? Do you ‘prepare’ characters by writing more about them and then cutting away? How well do you feel you know them, and the other characters in the book?
I do read crime fiction. Usually in binges. I enjoy crime fiction a great deal. Or two thirds of it. By which I mean the first two thirds of each book. The last third of a crime book usually pisses me off. I love the exposition, getting everything set up and into position, and then the cranking out of the mechanics that are going to get the thing to dance. But in the last third it seems to always end up in a sort of badly choreographed dogfight and the pacing goes haywire and there’s so much chasing after loose ends that it ceases to have anything to do with our experienced world and becomes more a sort of fantasy of resolution, a kind of neurotic tidying of life’s mess, like sport.
I don’t ‘prepare’ characters, but I do write much more than you’ll read. I cut a lot. But this happens when I’m just trying to write. I don’t really do preparation in the sense I think you mean. I might make some notes – but just very general things. Child wears glasses. Hawthorn’s brother is a taxi driver. That sort of thing. As for how well I know them – I don’t really know them at all. Or, no better than someone who’s read the book a few times perhaps. I’m not holding back information – other than locations maybe. I know where Cath goes to school. I know where the shooting in ’1934′ happens. I know roughly where Mishazzo’s office is. But anyone reading the book can imagine those things for themselves. I have ideas about some of the characters that aren’t in the book. But so will any reader. I don’t know anything.
Your first two publications, Horses and The Long Falling, are more traditional narratives than the later novels. Since then the structures have become bolder and there’s a greater presence of the uncanny. What do you attribute this to? Were you shaking off influences or Irish traditions with your early work?
This is an example of story telling isn’t it? I’ve no real idea what I was doing in those books. I’d only be guessing. But Horses is very much a bit of traditional Irish rural gothic with the stock characters and the silly plot, and I think it’s a piss-take. I remember writing it, and I remember that I wrote it very quickly, and that I really enjoyed it. And I’ve never written anything as quickly since, nor enjoyed writing anything as much since. I haven’t looked at it in ages though and don’t feel responsible for it.
The Long Falling is different. It was written before Horses, and it seems terribly earnest to me now, but I have a sort of love for it. I was a different person when I wrote it – young and quite unworldly – and it seems to me at this distance that it was a brave novel for me to write. I like that it was my first book and yet I made these choices : it is largely told from the perspective of a middle aged woman; the character closest to myself – young, gay – turns out to be a bastard; it has lots of gay sex; it speaks very directly about the X Case, and it’s angry about that; and it foreshadows, to some extent, the suspension of kindness that came with the boom years. I wanted to write a book about all of that. And I wrote it in the way I found that I could – conventionally, without much thought about narrative or structure. But again, it was written by someone else, and I admire him – naive little creature – but I can’t really see the connection to me.
The way my writing has changed over the years comes down I think to dissatisfaction with what I’ve done before. I felt after The Long Falling that it wasn’t true. Which is a dumb thing to say about fiction. But I felt that it was faked. Forced. Contrived. The next novel I wrote – The Parts – was an attempt at not-faking. It is almost entirely fake. It’s a terrible book. And it so shocked me that I had written it that I completely stopped what I was doing and tried to start again. And Animals feels to me now like my proper first novel. I began to use what Bolaño talks about – memory and ethics. I stopped trying to write novels and just wrote, and wrote out of myself, relying on my own experience and perception, and shaping something that I feel is true.
Hawthorn & Child is a composite novel in stories; Animals began as a short story. Do you find the short form more satisfying than a long single narrative? What effect, if any, did publication in The New Yorker – the holy grail to many practitioners – have on you as a writer of stories?
As I said above – I try to just write. And what I’m writing tries to find its own length. I don’t find any form satisfying – or no more or less satisfying than any other. And I think the distinctions between various forms – the short story, the novella, the novel – are being blurred, particularly with the emergence of digital media, and I think that’s a really interesting thing for writers, and is something we should welcome and enjoy. I write things sometimes that are too short for publication. Or which, if I put them aside to collect, wouldn’t reach a reader in years. And so I put them on my website. And I love that. That I can wake up in the morning and write something I like but which is finished almost as soon as it’s started, and I put it on the website and by afternoon it has its readers. It’s the most satisfying form of publishing in a way. And no money changes hands. There was a piece that was originally in H&C called The Spectacular, which was too long for The New Yorker or The Paris Review or places like that, but not long enough to put out in book form on its own. And I persuaded Granta to put it out as a digital only thing. For 99p. Like a single that precedes an album. And that seemed to work very well. So different ways of doing things are opening up, and I think, I hope, that will change the way writers write.
The New Yorker pay well, and I got to work with a really wonderful editor there called Cressida Leyshon. So that was great. But I don’t really get that Holy Grail thing. Cressida’s editing on that one section of H&C I think had a ripple effect on the rest of it. Nothing structural, just at sentence level, word level. I went through the whole book again having borrowed her eye as it were, and just tightened everything up a notch. As to what effect that’s had since – you learn from a good editor. You can hold on to their perspective to some extent and return to it.
A sense of place is strong in your work, either named (Dublin in The Parts, London in H&C) or unnamed (in Animals). Is setting important to you? You wrote about London when living there for ten years; now you’re back in Ireland. Where will your fiction go next?
I react to what I’m surrounded by. Maybe I don’t have a very good imagination. But I think of both Animals and H&C as London novels, though yes, it’s not named in Animals. I’m back in Dublin now. So that will bubble up, I have no doubt. Though before I moved back here I had planned a novel set largely in Ireland anyway – though not much in Dublin. And that’s still the plan. But my writing is for the most part about filtering my own experiences and perceptions through whatever set of assumptions I’m currently making about human beings and the state of the world, so it’s what’s to hand that I use.
I’ve been reading Witold Gombrowicz’s Bacacay after reading your praise for him. You said “he’s the only writer I know of who has come close to putting a stop to literature.” Can you elaborate? And explain too why you’ve “gone off Beckett”?
I’m not sure I can elaborate. Literature is all failure. And is therefore without limit. He is so good that he comes close to success. On his terms of course, and for readers to whom those terms make sense, seem right, ring true. Maybe I mean that he came close to putting a stop to my literature. I read Cosmos first, after I’d written Animals. And I just thought – Oh. So that’s what I was trying to do. It is unnerving to read books that feel better than my best possible hopes for my own books. He seems to have been in my head. And he seems to have looted all the good stuff. And he seems to have written it all down – before I was even born – with the sort of direct, honest, fiendishly wicked, clarified insanity and utterly cold conviction of an Old Testament prophet. And he’s hilarious. And he was sexy, and intricately intelligent and well read and cunning. And he led an interesting life. I hate him really.
I don’t remember saying that I’d gone off Beckett, though it sounds like the stupid sort of thing I would say. Someone who goes off Beckett goes off. I love Beckett. Though it does annoy me a little when people (I think I mean reviewers) latch on to that and talk about my writing in the light of it. And it’s invariably people who have an idea of Beckett that is superficial and inaccurate. The Beckett stereotype. I’m not that interested in the plays. It’s the fiction that I love, though it’s been a few years since I’ve read any of it. But it’s the warmth and the funnies and the subversion that I love. And I love the man, if that’s not creepy. He was a wonderful person, by all accounts. That’s really rare in writers. There is a tiny snippet of film on YouTube of him talking. And you get the south Dublin accent that some people in my family have, and it’s very clear, and you get a real sense of kindness from him, and honesty, integrity, even in just a few seconds, talking about a play somewhere. And I find it genuinely, peculiarly, moving.
Can you recommend an overlooked book or author to readers of this blog?
July 5, 2012
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.
October 21, 2010
When I rule the world, the list of authors everyone must read (yes, you’d better start taking notes) will include Keith Ridgway. I’ve read three of his five books; I am rationing them. But you don’t need to buy them from £0.01 on Amazon Marketplace to see how well he writes. His blog posts show it: try him on old Nazis, on honey cake, on rent boys and Metropole, on The Kindly Ones, on Alone in Berlin (covering the last much better than I did). Yet at the time of writing, all his books have Amazon sales ranks – that handily specious guide to success – pushing the one million mark. It’s a world gone wrong.
The Long Falling (1998) was Ridgway’s first novel – after the novella Horses – and won two literary prizes in France, which shows that they have better taste than we do. If Horses was John McGahern with – forgive me – attitude, then The Long Falling, with its depiction among other things of contemporary gay Ireland, must be Colm Tóibín: the Director’s Cut. In fact, the gay interest and the political currents are secondary to a strong portrayal of a woman in crisis, worthy of my old friend Brian Moore. (And that is the last time I will liken him to another writer; Ridgway is gifted enough to be a point of comparison himself.)
Grace Quinn has lost both her sons. Sean died as an infant when a moment’s inattention allowed him to crawl into a ditch and drown; her other son, Martin, left home in the Cavan town of Cootehill after telling his parents who he really is, and getting the expected response from his father (‘I mean that I’m gay.’ ‘Queer?’ ‘Gay.’ ‘There’s no such word. Not that way. It’s queer.’ Then: ‘Your mother killed the wrong fucking one, that’s for sure’). Martin goes to Dublin. Grace is left alone, with a violent husband (what is it about the Irish? Great writers and bastards for dads. Is there some link?) and little sympathy from the locals.
Everybody knew her husband, and everybody knew her. Neither of them was liked. She, initially, because she had come from England, he because of his manner. Now he was not liked because of what had happened, and she because she was his wife.
“What had happened” is that Grace’s husband knocked down a girl with his car and killed her. “Grace could not afford to fix the front of the car. She drove it as it was, reminding everybody. People did not like her for that.” Two deaths, one estrangement, domestic violence (“He would punch, and he would throw me. He could pick me up and throw me”): enough tragedy, right? Wrong: this is literary Ireland. Room for a little more. So Grace hits her crisis, runs into it with her eyes open, and moves to Dublin to stay with Martin.
Imagine falling from a great height. Without panic. Imagine taking in the view on the way down, as your body tumbles gently in the air, the only sound being the sound of your progress. Your progress. Imagine that it is progress to fall from a great height. A thing worth doing. Though it is not a thing for doing. You do nothing, you simply allow it to happen. Imagine relaxing into the sudden ground. Imagine the stop.
We don’t have to imagine it, as Ridgway has done that for us, and gives us Grace’s long falling, her time of “trying not to break open”, in perfect detail, told from different points of view. One reviewer calls it “the Irish Crime and Punishment.”
She is thrown into the life of the city, where the Celtic tiger (remember that?) is just beginning to drag 1990s Ireland into the modern world. Her son takes her to a gay bar (while he visits a bath house alone: “They were all ages, walking to and fro, naked but for their towels, some carrying keys, some cigarette boxes, all with the same look. Just eyes. They looked like men given some terrible task. They wanted it over with”). But Ireland has been backward too long to crawl forward without a fight. There are beggars and drunks all over the place. Everyone in Martin’s liberal, secular circle is getting agitated about the ‘X case’, where the Irish Attorney General obtained an injunction to stop a 14-year-old rape victim from travelling abroad to get an abortion. The case provides a political backdrop for modern Ireland’s birthing pains.
Meanwhile, Martin is fretting about his lover, Henry, and what he might be up to in Paris, even as he struggles to come to terms with his identity in a country still emerging from under the dead hand of religion. “The circumstances of his life had flowed from the way he wished to make love. From that clumsy declaration. I am what I want. I am this.”
The plot in The Long Falling slows down at times and takes tricky turns elsewhere, but by the end the feeling is of an inevitability playing out. It seems like a story you don’t so much read as watch. (Aptly enough, it’s being made into a film. Well: a French film.) The brilliant details and sharp dialogue don’t disguise the tragedy at the heart of the book. The past is not dead: it is not even past. We discover that Grace’s falling began long ago, when she met her future husband, and in the grand tradition ignored her parents’ advice (“Don’t go to Ireland. Do not go to Ireland”). Late in the book, Martin is interviewed by a policeman, who tells him, “You’re going to have to start from the beginning, Mr Quinn, if you don’t mind. I’m not sure I follow you.” “From where?” says Martin.
March 13, 2010
Keith Ridgway’s Animals has stuck with me, in the three years since I read it, so firmly and so fondly that it’s a wonder I didn’t saddle it with the meaningless privilege of being one of my books of the year 2007. It’s a wonder too that it took me so long to revisit him, and that I did so only after finding a copy of his first book Horses in a secondhand shop while on holiday last summer.
I say ‘his first book’, which is both true and misleading. In fact Horses was published in 1997 as part of a Faber anthology of new authors (in their First Fiction: Introductions series). After Ridgway established a medium-sized name for himself with bigger, standalone works (two novels The Long Falling and The Parts, and a story collection Standard Time), Horses was reissued in a slim solo edition – 80 pages long – in 2003.
Animals was a more or less indescribable thing – perm three from unreliable narrator, psychological horror, Kafkaesque, black comedy, existential, absurdist – and having now read Ridgway’s earliest and latest published fiction, I can see just how far he’s come. But Horses remains a good book, and indeed with potentially wider appeal than Animals. It’s clearly the work of a young writer: how else to explain this perfectly polished, showpiece opening?
In the broad spaces of the streets near the square, Mathew stood and watched for the secrets which the rain reveals. In the air around the mountains he could see the clouds begin to form, to gather themselves like skirts held in, to muster and breathe deep and peer down the slopes to the place where people live, and plot a route. He saw them set off then with a tiny roll, and saw them pick up speed and press a silence out in front of them, and pick up speed again and canter quietly, billowing, and roll on into a gallop like a charge of black and ghostly horses, their hooves turning in the air, churning up a grey dust against the sun.
It’s prose with rhythm, timing, drive, perfect pitch and a few clever touches: the nod to the title, and the beginning of a subtle sleight of hand on the reader as to who, or what, Mathew is. As the first paragraph of a first publication, not half bad.
But it’s silly to damn such beauty as being indicative of immaturity: Ridgway can really write, that’s all. If struggling to find fault, one would do better to latch onto Julian Gough’s criticism of his Irish contemporaries, for “copying the very great John McGahern, in the 21st century.” Sure enough, Horses has McGahern qualities: the rural setting, the close-knit community, the febrile relationships, the broodings – resentment, regret, revenge – at the heart of many motivations.
Even then, Horses stands on its own four feet, not least because the violence and bloodletting which seeps through it would never have suited McGahern’s low-key style, or at least would not be put on the page so splashily. Here, things happen not only in the past but in the present too. Mathew Doyle (“unsuited for the world”) is believed to be responsible for a series of arson attacks on local buildings, including one which killed the horses so beloved of Dr Brooks’ daughter Helen:
Her hair fell over her eyes in wet ropes and she felt a pain in her heart, or where she thought her heart might be, or where it had been, for it was gone now, dead, smoke against the sky, with Poppy and Gepetto and Mountain Star.
As well as Mathew and Helen and her father, the remaining cast does not extend much beyond Garda Sweeney and Father Devoy (yes, yes, I told you), and the short, explosive nature of the story, with a lot of conversation and a little action too, makes it read at times like a play on the page. Alongside the reasoning adult minds of the doctor, the priest and the policeman, the heart of the story pits two unworldly souls against one another: Helen, who is distracted with grief (“[she] wondered whether you could be struck by lightning and swallow the power that had hit you and make it yours, so that your life would be electric bright and burning to the touch”), and Mathew, an innocent (“Terror sorry for the horses. Terror sorry”).
The tight, claustrophobic drama of Horses portends terrible things to come before its end – and great things to come from its author after that.
April 4, 2007
If the cover of a book is important, what of the author’s name? Keith Ridgway is saddled not only with a name which is not quite chiming with authority (and destined to be misspelled in search engines), but a cover design which aims for plain starkness and ends up boring. With Animals, he is taking his revenge on society.
To avoid demanding of you what Ridgway does of his readers, I will say straight away that Animals is one of those books, often touted but rarely with accuracy, that rewards patience. This is a novel which it is sometimes tempting to give up on, but which you will be very glad you didn’t.
It takes us into the life of an unnamed illustrator, a man of – shall we say – sensitive temperament and somewhat obsessive-compulsive tendencies. He is troubled by “the business of being in the world and how to negotiate it.” As a consequence, the story is muddled and disordered, and he keeps jumping ahead too far and then pulling us back with an explanation. The events themselves, involving a dead mouse, a collapsing swimming pool, a see-saw stacked with spiders, and a haunted building, are both banal and freakish. And the narrator is plausible until he flurries into accounts like this:
As the towel came away from my lower cheeks I noticed first a small black mark on my left cheek, adjacent to the nostril. As I instinctively leaned in toward the mirror to better see what this might be, the towel, held by my hands, continued downwards, revealing above my mouth a stuttering continuation of this black mark into larger blobs and beads and scatterings, like an ink blot on my skin. As I peered, seeing that the trail continued onto my lips, and indeed between them, and as my eyes and my involuntary tongue confirmed that these blackish reddish bluish things were not marks or traces but actually material of some description – debris – and as my independent, quick-moving tongue trapped one part of this detritus against the test surface of a tooth to discover a hard stringy grittiness, so my hands took the towel away from my neck and my eyes looked down, to confirm almost instantly what I had begun to suspect: that what littered my skin and had fallen or crawled into my mouth was the sundered parts of a large black spider, whose bulky twitching carcass was smeared across the white towel I held in my hands like the entrails of roadkill dragged across the snow.
- which neatly highlights the issue of whether all the terrible and confusing things the narrator sees are real, or
nothing more than the physical manifestation of my own fear of the real world – by which I mean the natural world, by which I mean those parts of the world that are not created and controlled by us. By mankind.
This is central to the book, which is peopled with characters alongside the narrator who make their own reality: such as David, the friend whose self-contained fantasy fiction world earns the narrator’s contempt: “You’re wasting your time. You have a wonderful talent for writing and you’re wasting it. You’re like a beetle fallen on its back. You could spend the entire rest of your life describing the clouds;” or Rachel, an artist who subverts normal understandings of reality by faking missing persons notices. And along the way the book raises issues about the purpose of art, and the uses of terrorism.
All of this makes Animals one of the most interesting, and singular, books I’ve read in ages. Even in a tradition of paranoid, delusional fiction, it is a truly novel novel, and satisfyingly disturbing. Ridgway is an admirer of Beckett, and it’s not hard to see his influence here (though Animals is rather more readable than that suggests, and the occasional longueurs are not too offputting). It’s also lightly peppered with black wit.
Another obvious comparison is Kafka, not least for the inclusion of a character, gender undeclared, named only K. But where Kafka’s protagonists are trapped in an impossible system by a faceless bureaucracy, Ridgway’s narrator finds threat and confusion in the ordinary world, the one the rest of us seem to manage in just fine. Or as he would put it, “None of this is true.”