Yellow as Teeth

Nikil Saval

  • Lowboy by John Wray
    Canongate, 258 pp, £12.99, March 2009, ISBN 978 1 84767 151 6

John Wray’s first book, The Right Hand of Sleep (2001), was a historical novel, narrating the slow collapse of an Austrian hilltown into the embrace of the Nazis. His second, Canaan’s Tongue (2005), was set during the American Civil War, but in place of the wistfulness and nostalgia that pervaded his previous book, this one was reminiscent of William Faulkner in his demonic vein. Employing several narrators, including ventriloquised historical figures, it told of a criminal gang that set slaves free, only to capture them again for profit. Lowboy, set in present-day New York, describes the disturbing journey of a 16-year-old paranoid schizophrenic, Will Heller, through the subway, after he has precipitately chosen (to the extent that it is possible for him to choose) to run away from the clinic where he was being treated and to stop taking his medication.

Different in subject matter, these novels are not so disparate in their fundamental interests or methods. Each deals with figures marginal to the larger currents of history, who are overwhelmed by movements and psychological forces beyond their control: the Austrians by Nazism; the gang by the slave trade; and Will Heller (along with his family and the strangers he encounters) by mental illness. Inevitability, wraith-like, tugs at every character’s sleeve. For Wray, it is something like a metaphysics of plotting, operating behind or beyond the visible, palpable world. Finely unaware, richly irresponsible, his characters can only do so much to make their own futures.

This attitude, which generous critics have called ‘tragic’, has led to novels that are both elaborate and inexorably simple, barring Wray from the wider readership that – as we know from interviews and several publicity stunts – he longs for. In its fastidious effort to re-create a vanished time, The Right Hand of Sleep had an unshakeably antiquated air. Its diction and dialogue were archaised, but more to achieve a period tone than as pastiche. The result was a novel that read as if it had been written closer to its setting than to the year 2000. Still, in spite or perhaps because of this conceit, Wray revealed himself as a talented prose writer, extremely deliberate in deploying his effects, capable of producing languorously stirring encomia to the Austrian landscape.

But the principled patience and care that Wray lavished on his first novel hobbled his second. He spent five years writing Canaan’s Tongue, and the sense of labour is conspicuous. He has here and there claimed it to be an oblique protest against the Bush administration, and some passages can be read as if they were meant to apply to the messianic, violent impulses of modern-day America. In one aphoristic speech, the head of the gang, Thaddeus Morelle, dismisses the scholarly Virgil Ball’s interest in Descartes and Spinoza:

The teachings of Descartes are well and good for the old country – ; but here they just don’t churn the butter. This nation was founded on belief – credulity pure and simple – just as the great French Republic was founded on scepticism. Faith, whatever clothes you put it in, is the corner-stone of our Union. You’re an American, sirrah – ; not an Egyptian or a Swede. Without an understanding of belief – without a sympathy for it, a talent for it – you will never make your penny . . . No, my friend! The Enlightenment is not for us.

Canaan’s Tongue is full of sermons of this kind, and one gets the impression that the object of Wray’s opprobrium is not so much the transatlantic slave trade as the timeless American desire to enslave and exploit and ravage. ‘The visible, tangible, culpable Trade will wither away,’ Ball realises on the last page, ‘and the world will imagine itself cured. The Trade, however, will flourish – : as ever present as language is, and as unnoticed.’ These prognostications about imperialism and exploitation illuminate neither the slave trade nor contemporary globalisation, and they come at the end of Canaan’s Tongue, by which point one wonders what all the narrators and skilfully conjured folksiness were for. Wray struggles mightily to break out of the historical novel genre into something like national allegory, in the manner of Moby-Dick or Absalom, Absalom!, but he is finally too decorous to hallucinate, too careful to risk the undisciplined dreaming that such a book would require.

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