Wasps and all

Philip Horne

  • A Chinese Summer by Mark Illis
    Bloomsbury, 135 pp, £11.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 7475 0257 9
  • Three Uneasy Pieces by Patrick White
    Cape, 59 pp, £7.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 224 02594 5
  • The Captain and the Enemy by Graham Greene
    Reinhardt, 189 pp, £10.95, September 1988, ISBN 1 871061 05 9
  • View of Dawn in the Tropics by G. Cabrera Infante, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine
    Faber, 163 pp, £10.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 571 15186 8
  • The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine
    Viking, 282 pp, £11.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 670 82414 3

As this summer wore on I became aware of wasps in my bathroom. There would be a remote drone, and then a wasp would be flying at me, at head-height, on its way to the window, there to cling, finding itself shut in. Entrants multiplied, but without stinging. They just clustered at the source of light. When not expelled or allowed issue, the wasps simply curled up and – unhurriedly, with twiddling of legs and little angry buzzings – died. After a day at work I would find a dozen, after a week’s holiday a hundred, of the dead and dying, where they had dropped or crawled; and would hoover them up, or scoop them, for defenestration, onto the offprint of a friend’s article. I postponed calling in pest control, however, till the first sting. Baths and showers became occasions of suppressed anxiety; my invaders emerged from any number of orifices in the cupboard containing the boiler, which overhangs the tub. But their numbers declined with the onset of autumn. Soon I thought myself relaxed. One day, though, reading in the bath, I glanced down from the page to see a large one busily doggypaddle towards me: and weeks of submerged panic surfaced with a splash. I hurled the book into the air, expelled the wasp, sent half my bathwater onto the floor and subsided again into what remained within a couple of seconds, pulse racing. That seemed the climax of the infiltration. Now, though, I have the impression that even if no more than one or two any longer crawl out in person, or in toto, black bits of wing, of sting, of tiny leg or thorax or mandible, can be seen flowing from the taps. I am bathing, shaving, brushing my teeth, in a decoction of wasp.

It has struck me that if I were much less sane, or a novelist, I would be tempted to make something of this. Such experiences are novel, even while they are mundane, and the novel is a medium traditionally directed to search for meaning in the shifting textures of everyday life. The significant structures of fiction and of psychopathology seem close here. In my small tribulation, the oddity became normalised, but my normality became distinctly odder, perhaps more artistically patterned, in the process. Dwelling on it – which includes trying to describe it, as I have done – draws out meanings which may be latent in it or in the dweller. Wasps and water, cleanness and death, hygiene and poison: no doubt an imaginative system of associations has been insidiously formed. The person who has been thrown off-balance by some traumatic event might feel persecuted, or that he had been told something.

In Mark Illis’s exceptionally promising first novel, A Chinese Summer, a young man tipped into crisis by the unexplained departure of his girlfriend tries in his deep depression to make sense of odd things in the world by interpretative procedures which have a slightly paranoid pressure behind them: even on a familiar suburban train, ‘everything was foreign now, needing a second look. Even the noises of the wheels and the rushing air were worth listening to for ulterior meanings.’

It is to this foreignness, and the need to interpret it, the psychological after-effect of emotional disturbance, rather than to far-flung travel, that ‘Chinese’ in the title refers. The haunted narrator, Simon, tells us a story which is exotic or romantic only in his head, but is intriguingly so there. Daydreams and hallucinations unsettlingly alternate with sharp noticings. In a seeming paradox he ‘reads the thoughts’ of a fellow passenger on the Tube as expressing the psychological clairvoyance he himself lacks (as his desertion by his friend Helen has shockingly shown): ‘You should be glad you’ve got me, I’m your interpreter,’ the passenger is thought to be smugly thinking. ‘You’re all Chinese, hiding behind your Chinese walls, and I’m your interpreter.’ But a minute later his eyes meet Simon’s and, ‘making absurd my interpretation of his demeanour, he smiled pleasantly.’

The novel tracks Simon’s attempts to get back to reliable basics in his understanding of experience, attempts based on a regressive wish to recapture ‘the uncomplicated perceptions of a seven-year-old’. Simon escapes from London up the motorway, and lets his mind wander. ‘The sign said knives and forks, petrol pumps and wheelchairs; 1m and 31m. I imagined a million knives and forks, thirty-one million petrol pumps and wheelchairs, forming an avenue disappearing like streetlights into the far distance.’ These are the vivid perceptive distortions of a character who has suffered a psychic wound and, by this point in the story, a nasty medical one. Simon’s distrust of the adult perceptions he has learned by his early twenties, some of which have so badly let him down, is a precondition of Illis’s descriptive success in much of the book. To see as a child, though, is not possible for a grown-up: rather, the alienation from others and their purposes which his attention to the non-human world represents apparently grows out of Simon’s previous self-centred fetishisation of meaning: ‘I’m expecting the Significant Thing in my life to show up, the vocation,’ he says, recalling James’s too-passive hero in ‘The Beast in the Jungle’.

But the novel, though disturbing, doesn’t merely mime disintegration. For all the poetic rewards of the childlike individual’s exclusion from life, A Chinese Summer eventually refuses it in favour of social, sexual and familial bonds. It records a grim rite of passage and a provisional reintegration, in which the suffering protagonist learns to control his egotism by coming to understand, retrospectively, the loneliness of someone else – his girlfriend when he was unconsciously distancing her. At the end he wants ‘to break down the walls around me’.

The suffering is not just mental, though, as I have intimated. On his way to a job interview Simon is run down by a Volvo. ‘The impact was like a mallet swung by a lumberjack against my knee, sending me pirouetting, but it was all right, it wasn’t too serious, because the surface of the road was cushion soft, and the left leg, the leg that was hit, didn’t hurt at all. I couldn’t feel it at all.’ The numbness is bad news.

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