Dangerous Faults

Frank Kermode

  • Shear by Tim Parks
    Heinemann, 214 pp, £13.99, August 1993, ISBN 0 434 57745 6

This is Tim Parks’s sixth novel. He has also done some serious translation – Moravia, Calvino, Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony – and written a lively book about his life in Italy. And now, by way of explaining the highly technical lexicon of Shear, he tells us in an Author’s Note that he did ‘years of work for the Italian quarrying industry’: consequently ‘a huge burden of geological/mechanical vocabulary ... was bound to shape the terrain of some novel or other.’ This is, quite properly, not an apology; he has won the right to shape his own terrains. As he is still (at a guess) under forty he can’t be said to have lost much time in doing so. He has won several prizes and on his jackets great names affirm that he is not only prolific but very good indeed.

Shear is by a long way his most ambitious book and it probably contains the best clue to the nature of his gift. It isn’t, as one might have thought from the first book, Tongues of Flame, and indeed from other books in which everything builds up to some horrific climax, a passion for apocalyptic endings, though Shear doesn’t fall short in this respect. But it lacks one of the characteristics of the straightforward thriller it in some way resembles – namely, a plot line uncomplicated by the prose that carries it. The really distinctive quality, however, is rarer, more valuable and probably more durable than effective plotting; it could be called ventriloquy, an unusual power to assume appropriate voices.

Thinking of the earlier books, one might have been content to speak merely of control of tone. In Loving Roger, for instance, the narrator is a young woman, Anna, though there are interpolated diary passages and letters by her young man. In this book the pleasure of the big bang at the end is renounced, or rather transferred to the beginning, as in a detective story: the young man Roger is already lying dead on the floor of the girl’s bedsit on page 1, and we are only to find out why this happened, so there’s not going to be a blaze – Parks rather likes big fires – or some other terminal catastrophe. Roger’s death is overdetermined, rather dreamlike (Parks goes in for lots of dreams, rather more persuasively than some). And since the girl is good, intelligent but by the insecurely snobbish standards of her lover uneducated, lovable because simple or even vulgar, the writer, by using her voice, has renounced not only the more convenient male organ but also the cultural and linguistic refinements available to the Cambridge male graduate. The interpolated, arty, self-pitying prose of Roger is there partly because it provides an illuminating contrast with Anna’s, whose favourite reading (The Thorn Birds, The Far Pavilions) may be held to have debased her sensibility but has no effect whatever on her sensible way of talking.

This is not just a trick, but evidence of seriousness. Loving Roger is about a relationship that is in itself not unusual, and sexually satisfactory, but which is bound to come to grief, for reasons that have nothing to do with sex but much to do with gender, snobbery and character. Roger wants to be a playwright but for the time being works in an office. Anna works there too, but as a secretary, and the division between executive and secretary is absolute, except when the executives take the secretaries to bed. The basic story, the private tragedy, is in complicated dialogue with the conditions of a conventionally unmoral world, as inevitable as offices are, with their hierarchies, gossips and flirts; a world in which all are in a sense innocent until forced into a sphere where innocence is no defence; where young men and women are, without immediate penalty, at once scared and assertive, serious and treacherous, loving and unfaithful.

Roger is delighted to have a baby, but not keen even then to move in with its mother, a woman he despises not only for her choice of reading matter and her sentimentality, but for her parents. The baby is great, but he has to think of his career objectives; if this quite passionate and valid relationship interfered with them, everyone, he persuades himself, would regret it. ‘He said we had to be very careful not to come to grief with getting too attached to each other.’ Anna’s reflection on this statement is more penetrating than anything in Roger’s own self-examination in his journals and letters: ‘he didn’t want life to be real till he had decided so.’ Occasionally he catches, but does not hold, a hint that she is really more intelligent, as well as much simpler and much more honest, than he is. In his diary he writes: ‘One notes, in passing, the strong sense, the strong sense of disbelief that one is really alive, one is really in a situation with other people, a situation where one is obliged to do things, where history, of a kind, is being made.’ Reading this diary entry, Anna says: ‘Obviously anybody who uses phrases like “one notes in passing” at this point, isn’t going to do anything at all.’

There are other well-placed indications of the kind of world we are contemplating – the commonplace, lecherous, giggly world; the world of the affected and ambiguous undergraduate friendship, prolonged in envy and used against the girl; the world, also, of the single parent. But the girl doesn’t merely live in the ordinary world, she knows how to value it, understands how it is possible for people to live in it with untroubled consciences from day to ordinary day, yet be driven to commit the rather extraordinary act of murder as if, despite appearances, it were brought on in the ordinary way of things, people and the world being what, in the end, they are. To do all that Parks had to write very carefully in a rather low style, a proof of ventriloquial skill, and an indication of his courage. The book conducts its dialogue with the world while risking rejection as one more unadventurous, over-domesticated, modern English novel.

Goodness, his last novel before Shear, has a different voice but the same courage. Its title is actually what it is about – one of those thematic titles, like Sense and Sensibility or Futility, which, as Northrop Frye pointed out, establish a different programme from that set out by titles like The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, or Roderick Random. Here the tone is petit-bourgeois comic, the male ‘I’ living with his girl in ‘quite a decent semi’. At 14 he had a ‘moral code’ – ‘I would never be gratuitously mean or violent ... but then nor would I ever put up with anybody or any situation that made life unbearable.’ When his sister Peggy is suspected of wanting to have ‘a simple suburban abortion’ his mother raised the issue ‘to a vast metaphysical showdown between good and evil’. Peggy, it turns out, doesn’t want the abortion; and does not share his rational explanation of why she would be right to have one: ‘I wash my hands of you all, I thought.’

In fact there is nothing new about this kind of plot. The hero knows what, on his inadequate calculus, is the right thing, and will do it, consistent with his getting on. His selfishness almost breaks his marriage, which is saved by a baby, but a terribly deformed one. It is a situation deserving to be called unbearable. The agony of dealing with it is described in sober detail; it goes on for years, much longer than his adolescent resolve would have permitted. How George got out of goodness into the comfort of his moral code, his ‘complete normality’, is the substance of the tale. There is a fiery Parksian climax, and an anti-climax. You learn the difference between the story and its narrator: the story knows there is something extraordinary called goodness but he doesn’t. At the end he still doesn’t but is quite content.

Goodness has now been followed by Shear, a more remarkable book, harder to read despite its good story; the large extension of ventriloquial power means that the language of the book is saturated in technical terms relating to every kind of stone, every kind of accident to stone, every way of cutting and shaping stone; you need a glossary not only to understand the geology but to understand the people, who, like stone, may be subject to shear. What was shear? asks the mistress of the geologist hero. Shear occurred ‘when pressure was applied in at least two different and not diametrically opposite directions. Wind and gravity, for example, in the case of a thin slab taken half-way round the world and carelessly hung above a Sydney thoroughfare. In his own case it might be libido and loyalty, kids and work.’ But he wants to find out his own ‘shear strength’.

Parks goes out of his way, in the Author’s Note, to explain that in writing the novel he was aware of a close analogy between that process and the way in which rocks form: under conflicting pressures of tradition and vision ‘disparate sediments are gradually aligned, they crystallise, become a recognisable mass, a rock different from any other rock.’ This rock certainly is different, though some of the sediments can be quite easily identified.

The central figure, the geologist (third person this time), is sent out to a Mediterranean island to inspect a granite quarry on behalf of some Australian clients who suspect they’ve been sent a kind of stone not in accordance with the contract. A man working high on the face of a Sydney skyscraper has already been killed. His widow has travelled from Australia to the quarry and tries to make the geologist help her discover the cause of her husband’s death. She is only one of the women he has to deal with; he has left his pregnant wife in England and brought his mistress along with him. During his few days on the island he also has an affair with his not very trustworthy interpreter. Great demands are made on him, and not only sexually: the interpreter is the daughter of the rather sinister quarry boss; his wife is urging him to telephone; the mistress is refusing his offer of marriage; and the Australian widow is making demands on him which he would rather not meet, and need not meet, for the company that sent him has told him to drop the investigation.

Part of the ‘sediment’ that goes to the making of the moral dilemmas of this amoral man derives from Victorian fiction; one thinks of Lydgate in Middlemarch, another professional, having to decide whether to cast his vote for Bulstrode. Indeed Parks’s big theme is what George Eliot called moral stupidity, and what happens when events force someone to stop being morally stupid.

The prose of Shear is full of rocks, the history of rocks and the dangerous faults in rocks. Much of the action takes place either in a blaze of light on stone or sand, or amid the nauseating din of the quarrying machines. The craft of the geologist-author is to bring his man to the point where it would be possible for him to escape the pressures, not diametrically opposed, that would test him to shear point. But the Australian woman, and the strange, wise little girl she has brought with her, complicate the issue. There is a moral decision, unwillingly taken. The climax, if you’ve learned enough about the quarry machinery to follow what’s going on, is technically spectacular and also spectacularly technical.

What is impressive about this novel is that it expertly mixes genres – the sort of thriller that flourishes lots of technical detail, the detective story, the sex story – yet is also an ‘experimental’ novel in that it does unusual things with prose. And, once again, it is serious: the ordinary life, the professional expertise, are suddenly hoisted into the unfamiliar moral world, where the choices are not those of every day, and the imperatives override plausible evasions – the scene of that metaphysical showdown between good and evil. Parks deserves at least some of the extravagant praise lately heaped upon him. There are those among his contemporaries, also regularly praised on book jackets, who look rather pallid, somewhat trivial, in his company.