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.

Except that, in one respect, Wray is undisciplined. He has a fatal weakness for the arresting simile: ‘The men howled at the pulpit like heifers at a branding’; ‘I felt sullen and restless under their attention, like a cow in need of milking’; ‘My loneliness . . . cooked away, as we spoke, like hot oil on a skillet.’ The habit may have something to do with Wray’s training as a poet, which tends to inflate the market for odd metaphorisations. But then Ezra Pound didn’t say the apparition of those faces in the crowd was like ‘petals on a wet, black bough’, and after a hundred such comparisons, riddling one paragraph after another (‘like bulletholes’, I am tempted to say), the device emerges for what it is: a tic.

Similes, however, are perfect for suggesting the dissociative mental state of paranoid schizophrenia, and in Lowboy, their proliferation in the passages narrated from Will Heller’s perspective produce a vivid sense of a mind out of joint. When Will leers across a subway car at a teenage girl, her awkward response is to lower ‘her bangs like a shutter across a storefront. She gaped down into her backpack like a baby looking into a well.’ An abandoned subway station has ‘tiles green as tidewater, yellow as teeth’. Will Heller’s object-world is labile, in relentless metamorphosis, and the evocation of this vertiginous, disorienting place is by far the best thing about the novel: one is frequently thrown off guard, forced to visualise objects as things they are not, to see things at an angle that renders them strange. Here is Will, kissing a girl for the first time, no more disorienting than anyone’s first time, except for the slight, subtly achieved sense of being unhinged:

His hand found her hip, no thicker than a doorhandle, and she gave the least imaginable shiver. His weight carried him towards her. Her thumbnail caught the hollow of his neck. His lips came apart and a small defenceless thing was lost for ever.

‘Open your mouth wider,’ she told him. ‘Let your tongue out.’

  He fell back against the wall and did exactly what she told him. He was falling in slow motion. His body didn’t know that it was falling but there was no doubt whatsoever that it was. She took a half-step forward, a self-conscious shuffle, and let her knuckles catch under his jaw. A stricken feeling and a voluptuousness. To put your tongue where another tongue was kept. There was no way of telling was it the best thing or the worst thing that could happen.

The ‘she’ is Emily Wallace, a 17-year-old who met Will on the subway and has since been consumed by fascination with him: prurient, concerned and innocently curious all at once. This loving interest, so unlike the disciplinary responses of his doctor or the hospital nurses to his illness, drives Will into her arms in search of a kind of salvation. As Wray makes clear through fitful releases of information, Emily belongs to Will’s more stable past; she was present during the early stages of his illness, one of the few understanding friends, quick to come up with a correct diagnosis. She was also one of the first victims of his illness: disturbed by her friendly physical touch one evening, Will pushed her off a subway platform onto the tracks. Yet she forgives this terrible betrayal of her trust, and accompanies Will on his latest adventure.

Until Emily appears midway through the novel, Lowboy is not far from comic picaresque. There is the kind, older Sikh man, whom Will first encounters on the train and plies with ardently gleaned facts (‘The capital of the Sikhs is the city of Amritsar . . . Amritsar is in Punjab’) in order to bum a cigarette. There is the smart-alecky young subway dweller named Heather Covington, a casualty of mental illness and medication herself, who deflates Will’s earnest provocations with pointed jokes. When Will tries to explain that global warming is shaped like an upward curve, rather than a straight line, and that there’s no stopping it when it starts, she replies that it ‘sounds like a credit card’. Neither Heather nor the Sikh is particularly interesting; as Canaan’s Tongue suggested and Lowboy now proves, Wray has no gift for creating outsize minor characters. But Will is outsize enough, and in Lowboy, these bit players do the useful work of illustrating the rationale behind his heated imagination. Will sees the Sikh’s face as ‘flat and pleasant and unnatural as a cake’, and the reason for his repeated description of people and spaces he finds threatening as ‘flat’ eventually becomes clear: ‘flat’ is the way his world feels under medication – ‘like being pressed under glass’, he says. He has escaped from the clinic, we discover, because of the ‘flat time’, when ‘meds were slid between his teeth like change into a meter’: he’s desperate to regain the world in its roundness, to save himself from being flattened. It is another patient who gives him the name ‘Lowboy’: a name for a ‘squatter and flatter’ version of a chest of drawers, it designates Will’s medicated condition, as well as his preference for staying underground.

As with his other novels, Wray has done his research: here, mostly into paranoid schizophrenia. (There’s also some desultory material on the history of New York City, culled from Kenneth Jackson’s invaluable Encyclopedia, which the novel wears lightly.) But it would be a mistake to see Will’s story merely as a case history. The pathos of his condition is attributable to narrative exigencies as well: to the fact that Wray doesn’t want him to be a fully realised character in his own novel, to be the ‘hero of his own life’. He can only be a series of effects and tics, obsessed with the recondite affinities of surfaces and threatening objects. Perhaps his most wholly individual trait is a fondness for trivia, which he shares with the precocious, mentally sound children who populate many recent novels (Oskar Schell in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, for example). But precocious children cease to be children, and thus to be precocious, whereas Will is fixed in place by his obsessions. It does not help him that many of his trivia, when they are not about New York City, tend to be about the details of his illness and his medication.

In the end, Will is not to be saved, because the novel enlists him in an exercise he neither desires nor understands. Lowboy makes clear early on that its primary intention is not to produce a medically-informed portrait of a young boy’s psychic unravelling. Will Heller is not of great interest in himself. He is an instrument, a means for producing an effective version of an old genre: the apocalyptic thriller. That the imagined apocalypse – global warming – is both utterly real and entirely inside his head proves to be the modest twist. In the tortuous reasoning generated by his illness, Will believes the world will end in fire unless he is allowed to cool down himself: to ‘open like a flower’ – that is, lose his virginity. And so the salvation he seeks from Emily is both personal and (in his mind) altruistic. The violent acts that the protagonist may suffer or may inflict are (as in all such works) the driving mechanism for creating suspense.

Wray is unable or unwilling to use Will as the novel’s narrative centre. A great deal of exposition and personal history would have to be conveyed, and Will alone would be a highly volatile medium. To solve this problem, Wray does something strange: he adds a detective plot. The scenes narrated from Will’s viewpoint alternate with the story of a man hired to search for him, a jaded detective named Ali Lateef, and Will’s concerned mother, Yda Heller (whom he affectionately calls ‘Violet’). Ali and Yda are soon catapulted into an increasingly frantic chase after Will, which lightens the fervid sections emanating from his faltering consciousness. This narrative, which takes up half of the book, has its advantages: Wray makes full use of long dialogue sections to explain Will’s difficult family history, the precise stages of his collapse into illness, while delaying (and dramatically increasing the desire for) the novel’s inevitable, wrenching climax. Each of the scenes with Ali and Yda ends with a cliffhanger. They also enact a time-honoured subplot of their own, in which the methodical detective and the frightened client develop, almost despite themselves, a flirtatious, wise-cracking rapport.

Yet Wray seems embarrassed at having to construct these scenes at all, and the embarrassment seeps into and discolours the rest of the novel. Ali appears at the start of the novel’s second chapter:

Detective Ali Lateef – born Rufus Lamarck White – enjoyed anagrams, acrostic poems, palindromic brainteasers, and any cipher that could be broken with basic algebra. When casework was slow he amused himself by inventing simple alphabets, usually of the phonogrammic type, and using them to post compromising anecdotes from the life of Lieutenant Bjornstrand, his immediate supervisor, on the Missing Persons Progress Panel above his desk.

After the pirouettes that Wray turns to give us Will’s world, this standard American short story-style introduction, with its multiple full names and obligatory personality quirks, is tired, and tiring. Were we afraid that our detective might break the stereotype? Wray reassures us: Ali enjoys ‘sipping Scotch in his patent-leather armchair in the dark’. Even these little homages to the genre would be fine, if Wray weren’t so eager to point them out. When Ali offers a lighter to Yda, she thinks: ‘So he smokes . . . Not cigarettes, I’ll bet. She pictured an enamelled meerschaum pipe.’ After a visit to Will’s former doctor turns unexpectedly nasty, forcing Yda to leave the room, she remarks to Ali (expecting the doctor to have gossiped to the detective about her): ‘“I figured you’d get him to spill.” Lateef raised his eyebrows at her. “Spill?” he said vaguely. “I’ve got cable, Detective. I know how you people talk.”’ As with those stilted moments in Godard’s early films, when the characters remark on how they are like characters in a film, such lines sorely test one’s patience – until it finally snaps when, towards the end of the novel, Emily levels a blistering series of accusations against Yda, and she is compared to ‘a detective on the last page of a thriller’.

The detective scenes are the book’s weakest, useful though they are to the novel as a whole, because Ali never emerges as a fully realised character. The most we are able to gauge of his inner life is that he is ashamed to think like a detective, which he does habitually, as when he is taken aback by one of Yda’s direct stares: ‘The directness of her stare was a thing he’d seen only in men about to assault him or in women who expected to be kissed. How laughable, he thought. How pathetic. I can’t seem to think of any other reason.’ Ali is also a recipient of Wray’s simile-mongering. When he sees Yda for the first time, he compares her to ‘a peasant in a painting by some old master’. Fifty pages later, Wray inexplicably invites us to revisit the simile when he has Ali compare her to ‘a portrait by Brueghel’. Yda, too, has the gift, though perhaps the most awkward version of it. Throwing us back to the 19th century, Wray tells us that she closes a door ‘gently . . . like a governess leaving a nursery’.

In a novel in which one character appears to be purely a series of effects generated by his mental illness, and the others perform stock narrative parts, this sameness in their thought patterns is a great weakness. It’s wonderful when Will realises that on the subway the ‘seats were arranged not for maximum efficiency, not to seat the greatest number of people comfortably and safely, but to express the designers’ fear with perfect clarity’, but why must Ali come to the same conclusion about the subway’s ‘inescapable authority’ 150 pages later? Wray seems not to want to bestow anything like full individuality on his characters: they are always the instruments, and therefore the victims, of history or of genre – or, in the case of the historical novels, both. This might have been justifiable as an unstated aesthetic credo, were Wray not equally uncomfortable with the conventions of genre. Lowboy isn’t a satisfying thriller because Wray seems ambivalent, if not disdainful, towards the genre. Yet the half-hearted use of noir elements prevents the novel from working as a modernist portrait of psychic disintegration, in the mode of Hamsun and Beckett, because Will’s condition comes to seem like the means by which the noir achieves its ends. Wray’s two impulses aren’t mutually exclusive, but the novel suffers from not seeing the dilemma plainly.

A final word about the novel’s setting. Had Wray written his novel thirty or even twenty years ago, he would certainly have dealt with – maybe taken pleasure in – New York City’s extraordinarily high levels of crime, a major feature of life in the subways. Pulp films of the time – The Taking of Pelham 123, for example, and The Warriors – luridly dramatise this aspect of the city at its nadir. But in Lowboy, no one fears that something lurking in the New York City subways will destroy Will Heller: the only danger he faces is himself. This image may accurately reflect the city of the last 15 years, but it is also a reminder that Lowboy does not need New York as much as the subway movies of the 1970s needed it, as much as the detectives and psychopaths of any thriller need their cities – Jean-Claude Izzo’s Fabio Montale in Marseille, or even Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley in Rome. Wray is obeying a metaphysics of his own devising, not the much richer obligation to the settings of his novels. Lowboy could be set, with only the slightest of place-name modifications and the use of different local trivia, in the Paris Métro. The missed opportunity to exploit the terrain to its fullest is the greatest cost of Wray’s metaphysics. New York is no longer the setting it used to be, but its noir elements have not disappeared in the age of Michael Bloomberg; they have only migrated to different parts and strata of the city.