‘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.
When Wilf is installed in their apartment – where the blinds are kept drawn on the side overlooking the valley – Paul attempts to bridge their mutual incomprehension by showing him a geological survey map, and inviting him to draw his own diagram of the area. The result, at first meaningless to the rational architect, is the plan of a small boy’s paradise, a world of ‘sacred sites, skulking monsters and exploding suns’. Through Wilf’s eyes we have been drawn into this paradise – or, perhaps, inferno – until we know its landmarks and reference points intimately. The spring, the lake, the gasworks and the road tunnel have been transformed into haunting, sometimes appalling locations. Unfortunately this poetics of estrangement is not fully sustained. Underworld, which is twice as long and has three times as many characters as Ballard’s comparable Concrete Island, occasionally grinds to a halt under the weight of its own symbolism. Still, this is a memorable example of the urban pastoral turned nasty.
Allen Kurzweil, a young American novelist, begins in knowing vein with a scene at Drouot’s auction rooms in Paris. The auction house, we are told in no uncertain terms, is not what it seems to an outsider. But then this is the theme-park type of historical novel, in which not only is everything presented through a series of display cases, but the author is constantly on hand with a running commentary. On the right is a surgeon from Geneva, a Calvinist and therefore a grim-faced butcher. Up in the attic, but soon to be on the operating table, is Our Hero. On the left are some peasants sluicing down their ‘armpits thick with 18th-century sweat’ with ‘refreshing 18th-century water’. And so on.
At Drouot’s, itself a kind of theme park, the narrator acquires the ‘case of curiosities’, a small box of personal memorabilia which once belonged to a watchmaker, toymaker and inventor called Claude Page. What follows is Claude’s life-story. He first comes to prominence as a result of a mole on his right hand which, when squeezed, resembles the head of Louis XVI. The mole, together with its adjoining finger, falls victim to the Calvinist surgeon, who wants it for his collection. Claude is then taken under the wing of the self-styled Abbé, an eccentric nobleman who employs him in the manufacture of erotic watch-cases. Claude, however, seeks a wider scope for his dawning mechanical genius. Unaware that his mentor is not only a pornographer but a restless experimenter and builder of robots, he abandons his native village and proceeds to Paris, where he is forced to become a bookseller’s apprentice.
The story of Claude’s progress from the provinces to ‘Bibliopola, the city of books’ is Balzac in miniature, but then the whole of A Case of Curiosities is (as its name implies) an orgy of miniaturism. Claude fills his Parisian garret with his own tiny inventions, and then sets to work on his masterpiece, a robot with a talking mechanical head. Meanwhile he is at the mercy of Livre, the bookseller, whose hobbyhorse is the theory that one’s name is one’s destiny. Here that is certainly true. Not content with Livre and Page, and a writer called Plumeaux, Kurzweil informs us that his own name (German for ‘pastime’) was given to certain small objects by collectors of curiosa during the last century.
When we realise that Page’s biography has already been written by his friend Plumeaux, miniaturism becomes compounded by reflexivity gone mad. Plumeaux’s work, written on true watchmaking principles, runs to 60 sections and (almost) to 360 pages – the printer economised on the cost of paper at the last moment. A Case of Curiosities has 60 sections and 358 pages. The sequence of chapters offers a commentary on each of the objects in the small box bought at Drouot’s. Each object, like a nautilus shell, reveals a series of hidden chambers, and the Abbé tells Claude that life itself is composed of hidden chambers. As a bookseller’s assistant, however, one of Claude’s duties is to empty the hollowed-out four-volume set of The Mysteries of Paris, which Livre uses as his hidden chamber pot.
Claude’s mechanical robot, reputedly containing 1789 parts, is simply the culmination of these insanely proliferating fictional devices. The ‘Talking Turk’ is unfortunately programmed at the behest of an aristocratic patron to speak a single sentence: Vive le roi. Not unnaturally, the coming of the Revolution signifies the end of Claude’s career as an inventor. He is put on trial, but it is the Talking Turk’s steel neck which is guillotined – at the second attempt – and thrown to the mob.
Allen Kurzweil combines immense imaginative exuberance with an irritating archness of style. Most of the dialogue sounds as if it has been literally translated from the French, which may of course be another of the author’s jokes. But even such near-terminal playfulness may be forgiven in an author who conducts his Three Musketeers-type narrative with such irrepressible high spirits.
Like Kurzweil, Paul Micou (who has lived in London since 1988) is an example of the sort of American writer who goes native abroad. A satirist with a fine ear, his new novel is dedicated to an amiable piss-taking of post-Gulf War Britain, and to a consumate imitation of British vocabulary.
The national passions for grumbling and for sport, and the fact that we are much better at the one than the other, are very well caught. Rotten Times even includes four stanzas of doggerel on a cricketing theme, as well as the story of a pheasant hunt in which a nervous old gentleman ends up being shot by a deer. So when Micou portrays his upper-class English protagonists as drunken, xenophobic, lecherous oafs, he goes some way to being believed.
Lloyd James and his friend Owen, two wealthy con-men, become entangled in the amateurish activities of ‘Caesar’, the bilateral Committee on the Year of the Special Relationship. Caesar’s hopes of strengthening Anglo-American diplomacy come to little, even though they have the Gulf War on their side. (In the perhaps authoritative opinion of one of Micou’s characters, the Special Relationship is about 1. throwing joint wars, and 2. Not Being French.) The effects of Tourraine’s Syndrome, which puts Lloyd’s memory into hyper-drive, are a comic device of which more might have been made. The main results are to intensify his sense of patriotism, and to precipitate his repressed and fumbling amorous emotions. Nina, his chosen English rose, is a former tennis champion, though to be an English tennis champion doesn’t signify very much. There is, as it happens, an ambitious young American from whose attentions she must be saved. Luckily for Lloyd, his doctor discovers that only its English victims have ever recovered from Tourraine’s Syndrome; patients of other nationalities invariably go mad, or commit suicide, or both. The national honour remains untarnished by this adroit and often very amusing farce.
Set not in skittish London but in strait-laced Winnipeg, Carol Shields’s The Republic of Love traces the minutiae of the daily lives of two characters with intertwined destinies, Tom Avery and Fay McLeod. Tom, whose 27 mothers all belonged to the University of Manitoba’s Department of Home Economics, hosts a late-night radio show. Fay, a professional folklorist, is writing a book on mermaids, while her mother writes a book about the menopause. A mermaid, Fay believes, is a ‘sealed vessel’ enclosing either sexual temptation or sexual virtue. Mermaid legends are apparently not uncommon even in places as landlocked as Manitoba, and it could be said that Shields keeps us guessing as to whether Fay is really a mermaid or not. Tom is clearly the stock figure of the lovelorn sailor, even though (an occupational hazard with sailors?) he has already been married and divorced three times.
Once a year Tom comperes ‘Civic Affirmation Night’, inviting the callers to his radio phone-in show to explain why they love Winnipeg. (‘This is not a city of transients,’ one caller declares. ‘You just plain old-fashioned live here. And so does everyone you know.’) Carol Shields’s earlier novels have been praised for their intelligence and incisiveness, but one cannot help feeling that The Republic of Love, too, is meant as some sort of civic affirmation. One of the characters even describes romantic passion today as the ‘love that dares not speak its name’. The novel’s mission is to rescue love from the clutches of Harlequin romances or Mills and Boon, and this it does with a mass of domestic detail, such as the information that couples in wintry Winnipeg go to bed together with their electric blankets set on medium. But the problems of this chronicle of ordinariness begin with the title. It seems that the notion of the Republic of Love embodies an idea of political correctness. Love is democratic, not absolutist, since ‘almost everyone gets a chance to say it – I love you. And to hear it said to them.’ But this is ridiculous, since the fact that everybody has the chance to experience religious feelings of one kind or another does not mean that we have to start speaking of the Republic of Heaven. The love celebrated in this novel is a social religion, linked to the family and bourgeois marriage, and of course privileging the heart above the head. When Fay falls in love she has to swallow her intellectual folklorist’s belief that romantic love is a literary device, invented in the Middle Ages and now in the last stages of decline. But the literary quality of Shield’s novel bears out this thesis. What it never faces up to is that the old romantic love, like the mermaid legends, was inherently antisocial and allied to a death-wish.
There are family deaths here (at least one is shockingly sudden), but nothing really untoward, no rotting heads. Or, perhaps, only one thing. Among the presents sent for Fay’s on-and-off wedding is a beautifully gift-wrapped little bottle, which turns out on examination to be a phial of urine. Most novelists would have found some way of revealing just who sent her this present and why, but Carol Shields merely hints at it. What she shows is Fay’s belief that the bottle can, in any case, soon be obliterated. ‘In a day or two one of the city trucks would arrive and carry it away, and then she would be able to put all her efforts into forgetting its existence.’ Love here is not so much a republic as an emotion which relies on getting the garbage removed on time. It is a myth of completion without bitterness or broken hearts, a city with no underworld.