Heads and Hearts

Patrick Parrinder

  • Underworld by Peter Conrad
    Chatto, 252 pp, £14.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 7011 3895 5
  • A Case of Curiosities by Allen Kurzweil
    Hamish Hamilton, 358 pp, £14.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 241 13235 5
  • Rotten Times by Paul Micou
    Bantam, 266 pp, £14.99, May 1992, ISBN 0 593 02621 7
  • The Republic of Love by Carol Shields
    Fourth Estate, 366 pp, £14.99, March 1992, ISBN 1 872180 88 4

‘Last week, in another part of the city, a human head turned up.’ The severed head which opens Peter Conrad’s first novel suggests that contemporary fiction might be defined by its increasing convergence with the weird tale, the story based on a deliberate disruption of the natural order. The head is anonymous, sealed in a plastic bag, and being used as a football by a group of boys. The other novels in this batch begin in a similarly disturbing manner. Allen Kurzweil’s A Case of Curiosities opens with the amputation of the hero’s finger. A historical novel set in pre-Revolutionary France, it shares with Lawrence Norfolk’s recent Lemprière’s Dictionary the knowledge of some hitherto unsuspected developments in 18th-century robotics. In Paul Micou’s Rotten Times the main character suffers from a hyperactive access of memory, known as Tourraine’s Syndrome, brought on while he was shaving in an aircraft flying through a thunderstorm. Even Carol Shields’s The Republic of Love, by far the most mundane of these novels, starts off with a sentence that could easily have graced a Science Fiction magazine: ‘As a baby, Tom Avery had 27 mothers’.

‘It was the idea of the bodiless head which appealed to me,’ confesses Peter Conrad’s narrator. Conrad – an Oxford don, and hitherto a prolific writer of non-fiction – has one of his characters recall the conclusion of the Orpheus legend, in which the hero is torn to pieces by the Dionysian women. His head, still singing, floats off down the river. This could be an allegory of the more cerebral type of contemporary novel, but Underworld is a vividly expressionist canvas of raw emotions and visionary perceptions, set in a bleak cityscape strongly reminiscent of J.G. Ballard. The city is divided between the respectable inhabitants of plate-glass tower blocks and a vengeful underclass, who live in the derelict buildings of an undeveloped valley. The middle classes’ only contact with the valley is to drive through it, at some risk, as a short cut on the way to the airport. When one of them is dragged from his car, robbed, murdered and beheaded, it is as if a collective nightmare has been realised.

Throughout the novel, Conrad conscientiously switches between the view from the valley and the view into it. The brutal lives of some of his valley-dwellers – such as Mona the religious fanatic, Ern who is dying of untreated stomach cancer, and Wilf, Ern’s grandson – are portrayed with a powerful imaginative sympathy. These people, and not the murdered businessman, are the innocent victims of the city with its violent encroachment of the natural landscape. The valley’s criminal fraternity, led by the psychopathic Clem, may be mindless hoodlums but they too have some of the glamour of outlaws recycling the wealth of the city. Conrad is hardest on his professional middle-class characters, living comfortably in their sterilised tower blocks but obsessed with the valley and its symbolism.

Paul, an architect with what seem rather dated Modernist views, dreams of obliterating the valley by covering it over with a cantilevered concrete platform. All that would be left would be the urban sewer which, metaphorically, is what it is already. His partner, Kate, is a painter who goes out sketching, ‘looking for heads’, and encounters Wilf, the preternaturally sensitive boy from the valley. Wilf already knows that he must cultivate the art of lying when he goes into the city, but in Kate he finds somebody to whom he thinks he can entrust the story of the horrors he has seen.

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