Ian Brinton reviews
by John Muckle
In the blurb on the back of this extraordinary novel Will Self suggests that one of John Muckle’s achievements as a writer lies in his ability to conjure up ‘this peculiar inter-zone between the behemoth of the city and the hinterland of the country’. That said, rest assured that this world is not that of the simple description however atmospheric and photographically accurate; we are more in a world that combines the moving sense of ‘thereness’ you might expect in the poetry of Charles Reznikoff when mixed with the phantasmagoric creations of Paul Auster and Iain Sinclair. Much of the novel seems to answer that well-worn Larkinesque quandary posed by Mr. Bleaney as he looks out of his window contemplating the extent to which the way we live ‘measures our own nature.’ The mundane repetition of expectations, the patterning of ourselves upon our surroundings, is there from the second paragraph:
Gladys and myself never spoke beyond this muffled hello. I spoke to her because she was the next-door neighbour and because she reminded me slightly of my mother. It’s even possible I reminded her of one of her own sons, but I won’t bore you with a lot of crap about how people are often reminded of things by other things which even they know are completely dissimilar to the things of which they’re being reminded. After all, what would it really prove except that some people’s frames of reference are limited, or that they can’t stop themselves trying to tease a bit of interest out of nothing?
The wry humour of cliché as Tony Guest suggests that Gladys reminds him of his mother is merged with the understandable sense that we all try to make sense of our lives by noting, selecting, correspondences. However, this is a novel of movement and the static world of sitting around on the sixth floor ‘listening to various sounds floating up from outside’ is juxtaposed with the dispatch-rider’s gliding through the traffic as he joins up different lines on the urban and suburban map.
The world of the Objectivists comes to mind as Muckle questions the nature of similes and imagism:
It was like—but it’s easy to compare things when what you really mean is simply that they’re out there, pushing in on you like the small smells and sheddings of someone your sharing a flat with, the rasp of your own neck against a new collar.
George Oppen was a great admirer of the work of Charles Reznikoff and often referred to the two lines from the 1934 poem, ‘Jerusalem the Golden’:
Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies
A girder, still itself among the rubbish.
In a letter to his half-sister he wrote
Likely he [Rezi] could mull along and tell you what he had in mind. But how other than with this image could he put into your mind so clearly the miracle of existence—the existence of things. It is only because the image hits so clear and sudden that the poem means what it means. I don’t know that he could make it any clearer by talking about it.
The importance of these details, this sense of objects, was emphasised even further when Oppen wrote about being wounded in the war and lying in ‘a fox-hole, slightly injured, and with no apparent means of escape, certainly no possibility until night-fall’:
I waited, I think, some ten hours, and during those hours…poem after poem of Rezi’s ran thru my mind over and over, these poems seemed to fill all the space around me and I wept and wept. This may not be literary criticism, or perhaps, on the other hand, it is.
The delightful merging of this Objectivist world with the illusions and plotting of a Paul Auster novel and the geographical accuracy of Iain Sinclair is presented to us early on as Tony picks up a parcel from a Kensington basement and discovers that it is to be delivered to his neighbour Gladys:
I stood there not knowing what to do, nor whither which way to go; I wanted to go back straight away and explain there must be some mistake: it was a small rectangular old-fashioned brown parcel, tied up with string—and it was addressed to Gladys. My neighbour. Gladys. I rode away with it and for some reason I found myself trembling.
As though he is some character acting out moves within a gigantic game of chess reminiscent of Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’ Tony is drawn into a web of intrigue and pursuit. The reality of this world is punctuated by flat-mate Bob’s dope-fused visionary writings and Tony’s awareness that memories are easy ‘but it can be difficult to know which has something to do with you and which doesn’t’. One of the abiding images of this important novel which deals with the self relating to the constant moving and illusion of the city world is that of a nightmare Tony has of ‘Blind Terror’:
Mia Farrow staggering around in deep mud with her arms flailing, then banging on the rusty body of a wrecked car with a rusty silencer she picked up. A poor little blind girl in a panic, flailing away in the middle of a deserted breakers’ yard—crying out for help when there was no help to be had. The camera pulled back to reveal there was nobody and nothing for miles and miles.
As he questions himself as to why that image should be so frightening he concludes that it was because ‘it was much truer than most of them’ and that the nature of the trap was that ‘she was forced to trust what she already knew couldn’t be trusted’. As a confirmation of our vision of urban and suburban wilderness Tony then recognises that what is worse is ‘that she didn’t know that there was no help, no solution of any kind to her main problem. In Blind Terror Mia Farrow was totally alone.’
As Tom Raworth puts it, ‘John Muckle’s window on that world is the one people will eventually look through’ and, as if in mocking derision of this very comment doped Bob’s latest bubble is of writing a book about his environment “—bury it in a time capsule, dig it up in about ten thousand years and see if it was still true.” To which Tony can only reply “But it’s not true now.”
Ian Brinton is a critic and writer who reviews regularly for Eyewear. He is the editor of The Use of English and his most recent publications have been Contemporary Poetry since 1990 and A Manner of Utterance, The Poetry of J.H. Prynne.