I am attracted to stories of the aftermath. At the end of adventure movies I want to know, for instance, what happened after the astronauts make it back to Earth, or the killer is caught, or the girl is finally got. I find the peace at the end of, say, Event Horizon, deeply frustrating. The credits run and immediately I feel the need to inhabit the silence and apparent serenity of the surviving characters. Even in a poor film. Instinctively, I ask: what are the characters thinking now? How will the events affect the rest of their lives? How will they "come to terms" with what has happened? How will they tell the story to their friends? Despite the insistence of these questions – does anybody else ask them? – we don’t seem to want to know the answers. I mean, we never see films about them. We want only action.
Such indifference suggests a deep-seated pathological fear at the heart of popular culture. It’s not like we are all Odysseus, shedding experience like some fancy-dress outfit. Experience makes us who we are. We are stuck with responses, memories and responses to memories. I suppose we watch films like Event Horizon to displace them for a while.
When that film began, I knew my questions would not be answered. At that point, the roller coaster profile of the usual Hollywood movie prompted only weariness, not anticipation. Nevertheless, it was watched and time was passed pleasurably. Of course, its predictability was part of the pleasure. The thing is, I wanted that predictability to be taken to the absolute limit. But what does this mean in practice? Maybe it’s where time stands still and the whole picture appears, as in the uncanny vertigo you feel when you catch your own eye looking at itself in the mirror. You know you are looking at yourself – what could be more familiar? – yet there is also a sense of something alien. It disappears as soon as you notice it. The absolute limit, then, would be the noticing and the disappearance combined. So what would that be like? Well, Tim Parks’ novel Destiny is a good start. It is an exhilarating experience of vertigo.
The novel begins with the narrator, Chris Burton, a veteran journalist based in Italy, getting a phone call to say his son, a patient in a psychiatric hospital, has killed himself. He tells us this, and many other things, in the first sentence. It is ten-lines long, and full of clauses and clarifications about things apparently unconnected with the death. Right away, despite the appalling news, he is comparing it with the latest developments in his marriage and career. Such is the nature of literary grief, we might think; that’s not how it really is.
But rather than being just an example of callousness on the part of the narrator, or an indifference to dramatic incident on the part of the author, it is actually a truer reflection of how one experiences grief. Remember, Burton receives the news over the telephone. How can such news be close to him when it is comes in the form of electronic noise? The news makes itself felt in the play of the distances between the plain fact and his imagination. Burton becomes, at this point if not before, a reader of his life. All action is kindled in the mind. For us, rather than being insulated from the impact of the news, as we would be in the usual novel, we become Burton’s fellow readers, living in his uncertain present, trying to understand what it all means. The style of the narration is repetitious and associative. This could descend into an annoying tic, but works here because each sentence is necessary to the narrative.
There is a powerful section where Burton thinks about the visit to the mortuary with his wife, as he struggles, late at night, to urinate in the house of his adopted daughter. This one part of a long paragraph:
"Remembering and forgetting amount to very little, I reflect, remembering my wife remembering the miracle of her son’s birth, on our way to the mortuary. It doesn’t amount to much. Not when it comes to understanding. As if by parthenogenesis, I would tell people, to make light of it, to turn it into a joke. My wife would be boasting at one of her dinner parties about how different her son was from his father. A son in every way different from his father, she said. It was my first thought upon waking. His birth was a miracle, she claimed. You had nothing to do with your son, she shouted outside the mortuary."
The style, like Burton’s state of mind, is both manic and extremely controlled. This is not stream-of-consciousness. It is not as random as that phrase suggests. Troubling memories from various times coalesce with the current event – struggling to piss – as if, in all this distress, the divination of all troubles is about to be revealed. Hence the title and subject of the book: Destiny.
Appropriately, Burton hears the terrible news as he tries to finish a book on Italian national characteristics and how they determine Italian behaviour. All it needs, he thinks, is an interview with the elusive elderly politician Guilio Andreotti (who is, incidentally, a real person). He thinks it will be the culmination, and mitigation, of a career in journalism, which he now rejects as "the endless description of hell". The reference to Dante’s Inferno (Hell) comes during a meditation in a café named after the great Italian poet.
This is perhaps too convenient, but it is certainly in tune with the question of Destiny. Perhaps it prompted the direction of his thoughts about journalism? Burton says Inferno is a great piece of journalism but that Purgatory and Paradise, the other two parts of The Divine Comedy, are parts of a pilgrimage to perfection. This is something journalism cannot achieve. His book on national characteristics is, therefore, an attempt to get beyond journalism. However, he seems to have been pre-empted by another famous English journalist who has churned out a book claiming to do the same. He also happens to be Mrs Burton’s lover. Burton doesn’t know what the situation is between them. Her vicious attacks on him in the mortuary seem to indicate a conclusive dissatisfaction, an indication of an imminent split. But they could just be uncontrolled outpourings of grief. How is he to know? He is trying to understand.
From the beginning, Burton seems destined for doom and gloom. Despite this impression, there is rich comedy in his various encounters along the way. The nature of the book means that the crescendo Burton leads us to expect is only ever going to be a fiction of his imagination. All the set pieces, like the visit to the mortuary, appear to us as fragments pieced together in the spaces between other set pieces, like his struggle above the toilet, which itself is fragmented by thoughts of the visit to the mortuary. Instead, there is a quiet, optimistic conclusion – which is also a beginning – as Mrs Burton behaves out of character. That is, out of the character that her husband has imagined. One can thereby understand the novel as the refutation of Burton’s thesis – that human behaviour can be explained before the event. And yet, there is, in the form of his narrative, an achievement beyond journalism! It makes it one of the most satisfying and memorable novels, written in English, for quite some time.
But one last thing. I said that this novel opens with a ten-line sentence. The most striking thing about this sentence is that it is almost identical in form and content to the opening sentence of Thomas Bernhard’s final novel Extinction (1986). Indeed, the whole novel is deeply informed by Bernhard’s masterpiece. Does this diminish Parks’ achievement? No, it doesn’t. Technical brilliance does not swamp its emotional resonance. That can’t be borrowed. When Chris Burton is with his son’s body in a room near the mortuary, he notices three heavy pieces of dark wooden furniture and a Sacred Heart on the wall. It is there to console the relatives of the deceased. Burton dismisses it is a "public space that apes the private." As a result of its aping, it is drained of consoling authority. This is an appropriate definition of most novels: a public space that apes the private. This novel, on the other hand, like Bernhard’s novels, mediates between public and private space, showing us how intimately one influences the other. A wonderful book.
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