Dead Cats and Fungi

Robert Taubman

  • Puffball by Fay Weldon
    Hodder, 255 pp, £5.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 340 24565 4
  • The Mirror of the Giant by Penelope Shuttle
    Marion Boyars, 165 pp, £5.95, January 1980, ISBN 0 7145 2679 7
  • Another Part of the Wood by Beryl Bainbridge
    Duckworth, 176 pp, £4.95, November 1979, ISBN 0 7156 1458 4
  • Wild Oats by Jacob Epstein
    Alison Press/Secker, 267 pp, £5.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 436 14826 9
  • In the Secret State by Robert McCrum
    Hamish Hamilton, 250 pp, £5.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 241 10322 3

Whatever the women in these Weldon and Shuttle novels achieve, it is not through effort or desperation so much as by passive submission. Women’s minds and bodies are the scene of all the action, but apparently no more than the scene; and though uninhibited freedom in this area is a sign of emancipation in modern women’s writing, I don’t know that the effect and the message in these two books will get a welcome in radical circles. Glastonbury Tor stands on the horizon in one of them, the giant man of Cerne Abbas in the other. The main characters learn to define themselves as women through manifestations of the instinctive, irrational world. They have little specific sense of identity or relationship; subdued by the primitive – ‘trussed up in ghostly inflorescence’, in one of Penelope Shuttle’s phrases – they evade even a representative role as children of their time. Dead cats and fungi are found in both novels; sometimes it seems that the characters could as well be zombies. The reader has to elicit a meaning, not from them, but from what happens to them.

What happens to Liffey in Puffball is two events, one natural and one unnatural, both irrational: a pregnancy and the intervention of a neighbourhood witch. The pregnancy is described in chapters headed ‘Inside Liffey’ in much detail: ‘By Saturday morning the fine hairs of the blastocyst inside Liffey had digested and eroded enough of the uterus wall to enable it to burrow snugly into the endometrium and there open up another maternal blood vessel, the better to obtain the oxygen and nutrients it increasingly required.’ The witchcraft, on the other hand, is amateurish: but the reader, along with the opportunity to learn some biology, picks up a good deal about the uses of mistletoe, ergot and dried mushroom powder, and related rural sociology. On pregnancy and herbalism the novel is full and informative. On much else Fay Weldon resorts to very simple and usually dismissive paradigms, as with the husband’s views on ‘the essential goodness of others, and justness of the Universe. Business, after all, proceeded by trust, and the world, so far as he could see, was given over to big business.’ Or his sexual adventures back in London, hardly more than a parody of the stock situation; or the group of drop-outs who take over the London flat – very dismissive, this. The novel isn’t particularly on the side of youth or nature or feminism. In its fairy-story way it seems designed to contain contradictions – and does so with the effect of diminishing not only the characters but some of the real issues involved. ‘Without a doubt what had occurred to Liffey had occurred to Richard too – that once a wife is financially dependent, she is sexually dependent too.’ This is an issue that gets so far as to be formulated, but – in a context that includes puffballs and black magic, and another woman who cries into her typewriter, and even in bed with her lover is known only as Miss Martin – not far enough to be treated seriously.

Turn to Cerne Abbas in Dorset and there’s no increase in specifically human interest, though it’s mentioned that the world is still that of telephones, bombs, tourists and washing-machines. Beth is the heroine of The Mirror of the Giant but it’s not Beth that we get to know so much as such arcane facts about her as that ‘the lining of her womb is woven so as to change colour, according to the time of night or day.’ Hardly more than a ghost herself, her task is to exorcise the spirit of a drowned woman haunting her husband Theron. The Cerne Abbas giant, who counsels her, has the tones of T.S. Eliot: ‘I only know it is from you the knowledge will come.’ Since the ghost is that of Theron’s first wife, whom he may or may not have murdered, one suspects the influence of an Eliot theme. Although Penelope Shuttle’s poetic prose is often baffling, a pattern of meaning becomes tolerably clear as Beth moves from the idea of acceptance of death to that of the triumph of love. The latter, enacted in a lesbian scene between Beth and her friend Ash, convinces and exorcises the ghost: but where the characters and their relationship are so tenuous this may strike the reader as only another explicit sexual encounter of predictably little literary effect. The author tries to be frank and decent and open about it, but can’t, because the girlie magazines have got there first and muddied that pool. There were phrases elsewhere that I liked without comprehending – ‘ “It is the harvest of Orion!” cries Beth, and her shadow falls lightly on the genitals of the spider,’ or ‘the odour of garden-smoke, with its atmosphere of mild untruths’ – somewhat guiltily, however, for their elegance goes with a bit of pretentiousness in the book that has to do with smooth lawns, a salad that Beth ‘has a natural aptitude for’ and cold white wine.

There’s another version of modern primitivism in Beryl Bainbridge’s first novel, which she brought out in 1968 and has now rewritten. Much of Another part of wood has the raw quality of material hardly touched by the imagination that has made her something of a phenomenon of the Seventies. Yet it is clearly her own material, fragments of human behaviour discovered among a group of holiday-makers awkwardly associating in a hut in Wales. ‘It was as if they had all been plucked up out of nowhere and set down with the express purpose of being amusing or interesting or something, and they had all been found wanting.’ Joseph forgets his promise to climb the mountain with his young son, his girlfriend Dotty walks out, there are two chilling episodes of sudden illness, the boy ignorantly kills himself. They talk or quarrel over Monopoly, they fail to know themselves, or others – or to form a group or even notice their isolation. Some have memories or intuitions of a good life, in childhood or religion; and in the country nature can provoke a flash of primitive vision: he ‘saw a small moon, the colour of a lemon, dragged by clouds across the sky. Moons, he thought, were so that men like himself would know they lived on earth.’ But mainly their intuitions are of a failure somewhere: ‘Joseph and Dotty and the rest of them, old George too, had cut themselves free from that sort of thing, gone out on a limb. They didn’t really feel they belonged to anyone any more.’ It is a novel without any depth of interest in character, and the situation it deals with seems designed only to demonstrate a positive barrenness of possibilities. Yet this is not quite all. The author is aware of desperation even if her characters aren’t, and her skill in close observation has a compassionate quality: it doesn’t humiliate its object.

Though sensitive to the American comedy style of the late Seventies and to an ever more dreadful vernacular, Jacob Epstein has quite an old friend as hero, the perennial American college boy. Wild Oats is indeed fairly predictable on Billy’s easy fantasies, tunafish sandwiches, asthma pills; the parent problem; the girlfriend who is ‘the girl in all the advertisements’ and is now discovered to be pregnant (English professor). A sense of class, or at least wealth and privilege, is remarkably strong; if there’s a high anxiety level, there’s quick and assured access to psychiatry, drugs and divorce. Perhaps there’s a class thing too about the surprising concern with grades, essays and exams. Billy puts in a creditable amount of time working at World literature, economics and Chinese. The type may be familiar – the lost, impressionable, well-intentioned young man – but he’s less of a waster than most. What the book renders with most precision is the sound and look of the scene – the trendy-moronic jargon and not much more substantial content of talk; the Styrofoam coffee cups and Naugahyde benches. To some extent, Billy is ironically distanced from the other voices prattling on: ‘ “Now, he’s too old, and he’s got a kid and everything, and he’s really bitter. He wishes he was a young guy again. That’s a big part of the reason why he’s so screwed up. You know?” ’ But not distanced all that far: his own consciousness dominates the book like incessant chatter, recording, checking-up, worrying. There comes a point when it seems that this busy, articulate consciousness can only be a blind, to divert attention from some real, deep feeling about his life. Which could be – what? Anguish? Contempt?

In the Secret State is an accomplished if sad example of all that’s left of thrillers since they moved into secret government agencies and computer technology. It’s not without a bleak conviction that information systems are dangerous to democracy: but isn’t likely to make anyone care. Outside the hothouse of data control and security procedures there’s London: ‘rats picking at the guts of black plastic bags of rubbish piled on the pavement.’ A retired director of the agency pursues the trail of someone who has got at ‘a secret suite of non-standard programmes’. This is baffling for the reader, but less for its technicalities than for the lack of moral guidance: what is patriotism, integrity, trust, which side is anyone on? The book shares in these ambiguities: it’s not out to suggest that any country these days is worth spying for.