Monday, November 18, 2019

The River Capture by Mary Costello

A friend read my walk in the park post with its interjections of 'I thought' and its sarcastically italicised clichés and warned me to stop reading Thomas Bernhard: he is a zombie who takes control over writers who read him, she said winningly. Of course she is right – Geoff Dyer cheerfully admitted as much recently – and I didn't really need telling. While A walk in the park felt like a happy release from dreary blogmode and entirely natural – it's how I handwrite in my Leuchtturms – it emphasises how compromised my dissent of genre writing is. I replied saying that I should also stop reading Maurice Blanchot, as the post, with its focus on writing, absence and death, owed as much to him as it did Bernhard.

Influence is a minefield in which nothing explodes. A late friend who wrote thrillers once told me that, fearing undue influence, he never read other novels when in the middle of writing one, and also that he never wrote when hungry because he would inevitably start writing about food. And I once heard an intellectual historian saying that a thinker may claim to have been influenced by X, Y or Z, but knowingly or unknowingly they always repress two major influences. If that's the case, perhaps I should stop reading entirely from now on, as my style is bound to be infected whether I know it or not. But how pretentious even to refer to my style! Where are you or I in all this that we share with the writing dead? Given our preoccupation with influence and originality, the only worthwhile writers might be those who from birth have been prevented from reading and come to writing in the way Kaspar Hauser came to town. The walk in the park piece ought to be entirely sarcastically italicised.

With all this in mind, I read Mary Costello's novel The River Capture notable for the overt presence of Joyce's Ulysses in its pages. Its central character Luke O'Brien has a fascination with Joyce's novel and Leopold Bloom in particular which runs parallel in his mind with the events of his life deeply embedded in family and community. The novel is full of textual allusions and direct references to Ulysses, and adopts the free indirect discourse of the Calypso chapter for most of the novel and the question and answer format of Ithaca for the disarming conclusion, as well as the lyrical interweaving of the corporeal and the metaphysical, notably absent in British fiction, which may distinguish Irish novels in general rather than being specifically Joycean. Indeed, but for the Ithaca section, The River Capture might otherwise be recognised as a familiarly sentimental and occasionally melodramatic story of family life in modern-day Ireland. Free indirect narration has embedded itself so deeply in literary culture that readers accept it without question as the regular form of the novel and, having read most of the novel, nobody would tell authors to stop reading Joyce, while the Ithaca section is still so unfamiliar that one Guardian reviewer says it holds back "the natural development of the story" [my italics], while the other finds it "baffling".

The meaning of the title is key to dispelling any bafflement. A river capture is when, as the novel explains, "a river erodes the land and acquires the flow from another river or drainage system, usually below it, the first river is said to have captured the second in an act of piracy. The waters of the captured river are usurped by the captor and, at this point, the two become one." This is a clear metaphor for the presence of Ulysses in the novel, once described by John Banville as an “Easter Island effigy of the Father” looming over those who follow, while here it is the great river potentially draining the liffey out of all future novels (though perhaps ironised here by the allusion to the Spice Girls). It is also a metaphor for the ghosts of Luke's family and friends.

Mary Costello's achievement is to include and implicate the form of The River Capture in its investigation into the various strands of inheritance: literary, familial, and bodily. Luke is troubled by the possibility that the singular form and content of Ulysses and especially Finnegans Wake were informed by syphilis, which he suspects infected Joyce and was passed down to Lucia, his daughter, who died young in an institution. What would it mean for the ambitions of writers inspired by Joyce if bacterium influenced the form and content of a novel to whose greatness they aspire? But this isn't idle speculation for Luke, as it has profound implications for his future happiness, in which as readers we have invested our concern. Despite the implied formality, the questions and answers that conclude The River Capture contain the novel's most overtly lyrical prose as Luke speculates on the properties of water suggested by modern science and how it may affect his fate, as it undermines assumptions about selfhood and agency. It suggests something other than his conscious self will inform the big decision he has to make, so the dissolution of a traditional conclusion which qualifies the praise of reviewers is entirely in keeping with the metaphor.

Perhaps we are drawn to particular writers' styles because they speak to a deeper self than that addressed by other writers, catalysing a mutation in our thought we can never reverse, enabling more than just the publicly acknowledged benefits of reading narratives and instead something approaching the opening of spaces in the mind mentioned here in relation to other novels. This is why I dissent on the value of genre fiction: not because of the quality of its products but because of the disposition of the author to inheritance. Not only is the author untroubled by inheritance but positively embraces its given forms and features, using them as a forged passport to a land of perceived literary talent and value. It is dead writing and content in its tomb. So-called experimental writers can be as guilty of this as any others, finding safety in word-doodling mode. As my friend's warning revealed to me, a style that appears to set one free is also the brink of a grave, and we must remain dwellers on the threshold.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Distance from Ballard

This is an interview with JG Ballard published in the NME in October 1985. It lives in a scrapbook of articles I kept as my interest shifted from music to books.

According to my records, 1985 was the year before I started reading novels; my records being a slip of paper from 1986 with twenty-four books listed and scored, not one of which is by JG Ballard. And yet I know in that library spree I read The Drowned World (which I first typed as The Drowned Sea, a more intriguing title), The Crystal World, High Rise, The Unlimited Dream Company, Hello America, Empire of the Sun, and the story collection Vermillion Sands. Back then the interview stirred me with the idea of a novel that watches England from a train window. I borrowed these books hoping for a narration from this vantage point, and was always disappointed, no doubt because it is not meant to describe Ballard's novels literally. I soon realised, though not soon enough, that I was allergic to hyperrealism, indeed to genre fiction in general. It was the word distance that stirred me, and that word has recurred in my writing many times since.

In 1986 my list began with the novel that set me on the path that I knew at once was mine to take, but still I think of the interview each time I travel by train to stare vacantly at the landscape and the objects and lives within it. I glimpse a thousand curtained windows of homes and with each one, or all of them combined, I imagine a retreat from the relentless pressure of a journey and the infernal genres of human busyness; a quiet room where one can be at peace, thinking, reading, listening to the stillness; a room somehow nothing like my own. Bill Callahan's song suggests this thought is not unique.

The last JG Ballard book I read was The Day of Creation in 1987, reviewed here by Martin Amis.

His suggestion that Ballard's novels "address a different–a disused–part of the reader's brain" rings true and must be close to what Victoria Best calls the "extraordinary elasticity" of some narratives that she says "open up spaces" in her mind, which is something other than flights of the imagination, and not quite Proustian reveries either, but something like a clearing in the forest. This would mitigate the otherwise lamentable influence Ballard has on the current generation of British writers, but this, what seems to be the most valuable and most obscure gift of the novel, is not something that can be easily discussed from a distance, from within the forest. However, as demonstrated by my apparent need to note down the first novel on my first book list, it is the only thing worth writing about.


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