Shuddering Organisms

Jonathan Coe

  • Betrayals by Charles Palliser
    Cape, 308 pp, £14.99, March 1994, ISBN 0 224 02919 3

Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx has been one of the more intriguing literary successes of recent years, and one which raises some interesting questions about the always fraught and problematic relationship between contemporary novelists and the reading public they like to imagine themselves serving. Briefly, the situation is this. In 1989, Palliser published The Quincunx, a narrative of some 400,000 words (1,191 pages in the recent ‘Collector’s Edition’) which so scrupulously recreated the language and conventions of mid-Victorian fiction, its labyrinthine plotting, its vivid characterisation and breadth of social canvas, that it was an immediate success with thousands of readers hungry for a return to the narrative and moral certainties of Dickens, Eliot and Collins. Deservedly, this unusual and ambitious book – 12 years, we are told, in the researching and writing – became an international bestseller.

Somewhere along the way, however, Palliser seems to have become dissatisfied with the way his novel was being read. Although the impulse to write The Quincunx came from his ‘early love of Victorian fiction’, his intention was ‘not to imitate these novels passively but to re-contextualise them, to offer a critique like an academic work, but in the form of another novel’. It appears that the nature of this ‘critique’ went unappreciated by some of his readers, because when The Quincunx was reissued in hardback last year, he added an authorial Afterword which explained patiently that it had always been intended as ‘neither a historical novel nor a passive pastiche, but rather ... an ironic reconstruction of the Victorian novel’. He alluded to several of the ambiguities and unresolved mysteries at the heart of the plot; pointed out that in creating these he had deliberately breached the ‘implied contract’ between writer and reader upon which the Victorian novel is founded; indicated that at the very mathematical centre of the book – ‘the middle of the middle section of the middle Chapter of the middle Book of the middle Part’ – there lies a crucial missing portion of manuscript which means that ‘the linchpin of the whole novel is therefore a gap, a dizzying void’; and explained that the intended effect of these gaps and ambiguities was to make the reader aware of ‘suppressed issues’ which would ‘disrupt the unruffled and seamless surface that Victorian public ideology – like any ideology – tries to present’. At the same time he conceded that the book had found many readers who, ‘reading the novel as if it had been written in about 1850, had seen no reason to look for any ambiguities’.

The most obvious deduction to be made from this is a troubling one for Palliser, and he does not mention it in his Afterword: that if The Quincunx can be read with a great deal of pleasure by people who have misunderstood what he regards as its raison d’être, the real source of this pleasure is likely to lie not in his own work as an inheritor and manipulator of literary conventions, but in the work of those Victorian novelists from whose writings he has borrowed so skilfully.

For there is certainly no denying the brilliance of The Quincunx as pastiche. This is not offered as faint praise: Palliser can match Wilkie Collins for the maintenance of suspense and for descriptive memorability (most notably in the scenes of coin-hunting in the London sewers, or at the shockingly brutal Northern ‘school’ where the hero is sent to die), and if he has little of Dickens’s generous sympathy or (consequently) humour, he is pretty much his equal as a documentarist. All the same, while reading The Quincunx I couldn’t help wondering what the novel would amount to – what would be left of it, in fact – if you stripped away its pastiche elements and pared it down to everything that was purely and originally Palliser’s.

As it happened, he soon afterwards published The Sensationist, which might almost have been written in response to this question and which provided it with a succinct answer: not a lot. This short, pointless little book was set in an unnamed Northern city and catalogued a series of joyless sexual couplings in lean, oblique language. In doing so, it could not help retrospectively diminishing The Quincunx itself, because some of the less obvious and less appealing features of the earlier novel were here repeated and brought to the surface in grotesquely attenuated form: there was the same heavy structural dependence on a succession of seemingly random encounters in which the characters monotonously used each other for their own ends, and there was even a near-identical closing scene in which the heroine, having been reduced to madness, is sardonically abandoned by an aloof and inscrutable hero.

The Sensationist left the distinct impression that, having deprived himself of the ventriloquial outlet of pastiche, Palliser was left with either very little to say or no voice in which to say it. (Although it had a contemporary setting, and its central character was clearly meant to be some sort of money-market dealer, its political dimension seemed to have far less relevance to the ideological wars of the Eighties than the sparky debates between Pentecost and Silverlight in The Quincunx.) And so at the very least, it’s a relief to find that for his third novel Palliser has turned his hand to pastiche once again, for Betrayals – a series of ten mystery stories tenuously linked by the theme of murderous revenge – takes its readers on a whirlwind tour of several different literary and critical genres.

But the news isn’t all encouraging. The main achievement of Palliser’s latest novel is, once again, to remind us of what was so good about his first – in this case by pointing up the crucial difference between pastiche written out of love and reverence, and pastiche written out of queasy disdain. One of the more compelling passages in Palliser’s Afterword to The Quincunx described his early enthusiasm for Dickens and his realisation that the appeal of the great Victorian novelists is ‘to a complicated kind of nostalgia which becomes even more complicated if one first read them in childhood ... a strange kind of nostalgia, since it’s for a world of terror, madness, injustice and cruelty’. The intensity of his admiration for these writers and the thoroughness with which he had absorbed their virtues shone through at every level of the novel, from its procession of grand, stately sentences to its cluttered and (at times) almost impenetrable plot. It was this sense of a writer animated by love, visibly determined to do full justice to a genre about which he cared passionately, that made the prospect of more than a thousand pages of pastiche bearable. In Betrayals the reverse is too often true.

The novel begins with an unexplained murder as passengers are forced to abandon a snowbound train in the Scottish Highlands, and then takes in several digressive stories of injustice and revenge in colonial settings, which provide some acceptable pastiche of Conrad and Kipling. But as it draws up to date and enters the world of TV detective serials and blockbuster novels, Palliser’s evident contempt for his source material becomes more and more constraining. There’s a certain haughty and unattractive superiority about the pasticheur who believes there’s no reason why he shouldn’t turn his hand, for three or four pages, to the sort of stuff through which other (lesser?) authors have earned themselves vast fortunes and wide readerships. Palliser may think that he can write like Jeffrey Archer, for instance, and his portrayal of a self-important politician-turned-bestseller might have a degree of rough comic vigour, but when he makes a cursory attempt at Archer’s style – in which willing nymphets are brought to ‘shuddering organisms’ – the result is neither accurate imitation nor brilliant humour. Nor does he manage to retain any sense of Archer’s ruthlessly efficient approach to plotting, since – a common problem, this, with pastiche executed for ‘literary’ purposes – the narrative thrust of the Archer passages has to be horribly contorted to fit in with Palliser’s own larger and more complex scheme of things.

This fatal combination of condescension towards the parodied and consistent willingness to forget about accuracy of reproduction if the plot can’t cope with it reaches its zenith in the longest and least successful section of the book, ‘An Open Mind’. This is the story of two unlikely friends brought together by their shared interest in murder – an academic who writes crime fiction as a sideline, and an introverted bookshop assistant whose semi-literacy furnishes an all-too-useful peg for some of Palliser’s snootier jokes (the poor clot keeps talking about a philosopher called ‘High Digger’, for example, and mistakes the word ‘signifier’ for a reference to someone called ‘Sidney Fire’). Page after page is devoted to tedious exposition of the plots of two television programmes they watch together – Gargunnock Braes, a Scottish soap opera, and Biggert, a detective serial. But as the relationship of these plots to the main action starts to get progressively more unlikely, culminating in a foolish development when we’re asked to believe that the BBC would cancel the pre-recorded closing minutes of a top-rated serial and replace them with scenes written by an untested writer, transmitted live, as part of some convoluted police operation to trap a serial killer, you realise that Palliser has so little respect for or interest in these products of popular culture that he is not prepared to observe their conventions carefully enough to provide even a veneer of plausibility. Even when parodying the omniscient narrator at his most loftily mannered, or recreating the most extravagant Dickensian grotesques, The Quincunx never came close to offering such impudent challenges to our suspension of disbelief.

In the later novels of Dickens and in the best of Wilkie Collins’s mystery stories, we find that the arousal of narrative curiosity has become more than a simple device to keep people reading and is already being put to more sophisticated ends: these are novels of epistemology, and Arthur Clennam, Esther Summerson and Franklin Blake are reluctant detectives whose investigations function as thrilling metaphors for the processes by which we all acquire our knowledge of the world. The Quincunx carried on this tradition with a vengeance, almost to the point where it became structurally repetitious: scene after scene involved John Huffam coming into contact with someone who knows more about the plot surrounding him than he does, quizzing them relentlessly about it and then drawing his conclusions with varying degrees of perspicacity, groping his way towards the moment when he might come to a full understanding of his position – the moment when, as he himself phrases it, ‘the formless lump of links snapped straight and I saw the connexions that enchained me.’ Palliser is clearly fascinated by this sort of progress towards understanding, and at first it seems as though Betrayals is going to find fresh and absorbing ways of tracing it. He’s adept at dropping early hints which gesture intriguingly towards possible connections between the stories, and for a while it’s quite possible to become hooked on the promise of sense emerging from randomness before the book is over.

The problem is that here – as in both The Quincunx and The Sensationist – there seems little point in inching our way towards knowledge of the world if that world is, in Palliser’s hands, going to end up looking so narrow. Betrayals might just as well have been the title of The Quincunx, just as Plots (his abandoned first novel) might as well have been the title of Betrayals: for the world disclosed to us in Palliser’s fiction is a very much reduced one, founded on a wearyingly Hobbesian conception of human nature, in which every character turns out to be a self-interested predator, trust invariably leads to betrayal, and there is no such thing as accident, only a series of innumerable links in a chain which will eventually turn out to be part of some malicious and exploitative conspiracy.

If this suffocating vision of human and economic relations is to hold our interest, it needs something like the brilliant stylistics and architecture of Palliser’s extraordinary first novel to flesh it out. In which case, however guilty we may have been of misreading it the first time around, I suspect that there are still a good many admirers out there who would quite happily forego Betrayals and wait another 12 long years for Palliser to come up with Quincunx 2.