This is not a ghost story
- The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer
Borough, 320 pp, £7.99, January 2014, ISBN 978 0 00 749145 2
Nathan Filer seems, by all accounts, a very nice man. Despite being given a six-figure advance from HarperCollins for his first novel, getting glowing reviews, winning the Costa Book Award and topping the bestseller lists, he says he means to keep up his registration as a mental health nurse and work occasional shifts. He collected the Costa prize three days after getting married and wore the same suit to both ceremonies. As for the book, the Costa judges said that The Shock of the Fall is ‘so good it will make you feel a better person’, though that may be the last thing anyone should ask of a novel.
The narrator, Matthew Homes, is 19 years old. He lives in Bristol. When he was nine, his older brother, Simon, who had Down’s syndrome, died during a family holiday at a caravan park on the Dorset coast. The exact circumstances of his death aren’t revealed until three-quarters of the way through the book, but from the beginning it’s clear that Matt holds himself obscurely responsible. When Matt was 17 he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. According to his risk assessment, ‘he suffers from command hallucinations, which he attributes to a dead sibling.’ It becomes apparent that he’s writing on a computer at a psychiatric day centre when he interrupts his story to type ‘please stop reading over my shoulder’ in large capitals. ‘I had to put that in big letters to drive the message home. It worked, but now I feel bad about it. It was the student social worker who was looking over my shoulder.’
There are three timeframes in the novel: the present in which Matt is writing (the first few months of 2010, with government spending cuts looming); the distant past when Simon was alive; and the decade since his death, Matt’s brotherless adolescence and the onset of his mental illness, the passing of the years measured in the evolution of computer game consoles. Filer plaits the strands together skilfully, at times embedding memories within memories and moving from one timeframe to another to another in the space of a few paragraphs. The Shock of the Fall is an impressive feat of storytelling: it’s never confusing and has plenty of narrative momentum. Filer took a module in suspense fiction during his creative writing MA at Bath Spa University (a course he now teaches on). And, as a story of a boy and his family struggling through grief, the book is often very affecting. Filer displays control of the narrative voice, too: Matt sounds convincingly like an intelligent, troubled teenager who hasn’t had much formal education (he leaves school after GCSEs, moves into a flat with his only friend, gets a job as a carer at an old people’s home). In the acknowledgments, Filer thanks his flatmate ‘who endured every vicissitude of my studies with me’: you wouldn’t catch Matt using a word like ‘vicissitude’. The mask never slips. Though perhaps the novel would be better – less likely to make you feel a better person – if it did.
When Matt is discharged from hospital for the first time after his diagnosis, the consultant psychiatrist asks him if Simon is in the room with them. In one sense, of course he is, he’s always there, in the thoughts and memories of his family and in the silences among them. There’s nothing especially mad about Matt’s belief in the recycling of his dead brother’s atoms as a form of material, secular afterlife. Nothing especially mad, either, about his seeing Simon’s face where it isn’t, in other people, in the moon. Grief, loneliness, exhaustion and psychotropic drugs can make anyone see things that aren’t really there. But Matt’s belief goes further. He doesn’t think Simon is present ‘in one sense’: he knows he is as present to him as he was when he was alive. He is under the bed, talking to him, poking his head out, smiling. ‘He beamed with pride, then pounced, throwing his arms around me. I let myself fall under his weight. It felt so good to hold him, I could hardly breathe.’
Mental health is a continuum, but psychiatry sometimes has to draw a line between the sane and the insane. The forced admission of someone to a psychiatric ward is known as ‘sectioning’ because it’s done according to a section of the Mental Health Act, but the overtones of dividing, of cutting off, are unavoidable. The Shock of the Fall takes its readers to that line – which appears exactly halfway through the novel – but then we stop, safe on the side of the sane, and stand back as we watch Matt cross over into madness:
I stumbled into a new morning, blurred at its edges. The streets stirred to life under a cloudy sky. People were staring at me, pointing, or turning quickly away. Each of them had him inside; his many, many, many atoms, and each of them with his face, his beautiful smiling face.
It wasn’t frightening, it wasn’t like that.
It was glorious.
The techniques of suspense – the deliberate withholding of information till the moment of maximum impact, while keeping readers turning the pages in the meantime – work against the story here. Matt later says that ‘mental illness turns people inwards. That’s what I reckon. It keeps us forever trapped by the pain of our own minds … I’m stuck looking inwards. Nearly every thought I have is about me – this whole story has been all about me.’ But the description of his psychotic break is too obviously concerned with readers’ reactions: the shocking late revelation of Simon’s face in the faces of strangers, the anticipation of our imagining this to be frightening, the correcting of our misapprehension. Just when it’s most important – and most difficult – to keep us seeing the world from Matt’s point of view, Filer instead reinforces the distinction between the narrator’s perspective and the reader’s.
Throughout the novel, we hear Matt’s voice, but we don’t get inside his head. He is able to believe – or rather to know – both that his dead brother is physically present and that this belief or knowledge is a symptom of his disease. ‘It’s like we each have a wall that separates our dreams from reality, but mine has cracks in it,’ he says. ‘The dreams can wriggle and squeeze their way through, until it’s hard to know the difference. Sometimes the wall breaks completely. It’s then that the nightmares come.’ (The words of the last two sentences are fragmented, scattered across the page like a concrete poem.) But it isn’t hard for the reader to know the difference between Matt’s dreams and reality. We know – the novel knows – all too straightforwardly that Simon isn’t really there, that Matt is having hallucinations. This isn’t because we’re sane and he’s mad; it’s because of the way Filer tells his story. In The Turn of the Screw Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are both real ghosts and figments of the governess’s imagination. If Filer’s novel were actually told from Matt’s point of view, we would believe it was at least possible that Simon had in some real sense returned from the dead. But we don’t. The problem with The Shock of the Fall is that it isn’t a ghost story. The absence of ambiguity means the book is fundamentally out of sympathy with its narrator, for all the effort it puts into persuading us that Matt isn’t merely telling us his story as a disembodied narrative voice, but is actually committing words to paper.
The more strenuously the novel tries to establish its documentary status, haphazardly arranged, spontaneously written as fast as Matt can type, the more contrived it seems. A story as neatly structured and carefully told as The Shock of the Fall isn’t written in a single draft. Just because he’s writing autobiography rather than fiction, drawing on his (unreliable) memories rather than his imagination, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t take Matt as many drafts and as much planning as Filer says he needed himself to produce something so well crafted, all the joints (both plotwise and thematic) dovetailed, all the rough surfaces planed smooth. There aren’t even any literals or spelling mistakes, not even in the typewritten sections. And the typewriter ribbon happens to run out of ink just as it’s time for that part of the story to fade away. And so on.
Matt’s other creations aren’t produced so easily. It takes him weeks to build an atomic model ant farm in his flat, sketched out for him by Simon ‘moving my hand, scratching my pen across the sketchpads and the bedroom wall. His interstellar dust. His atoms.’ Simon had always wanted an ant farm, but his parents never let him have one. So Matt makes one for him. ‘With the right ingredients, like the right sort of atoms and everything,’ he explains, ‘you can build’ memories, ‘stop them being memories, and make them real again’:
I had filled hundreds of bottles and jars with earth, connecting groups of them together with plastic tubing. The hydrogens were already up and running – they’re the easiest to build – a single proton and a single electron … The oxygens took more work, two electrons in the first shell, and six in the outer shell. Then I would pair them up, colliding a pair of electrons from each to make the covalent bonds. This often smashed the glass, so most of the ants had escaped. The carpet was crawling with them.
He shows his ‘Special Project’ to his grandmother. She says: ‘We need to get you some help.’
He also describes drawing a family portrait for his mother’s 50th birthday, the ‘secret notes and partial sketches’ he makes by way of preparation, the careful decisions about composition: he includes Simon by putting him in a photograph on the table beside his mother; he draws himself ‘with a sketchbook on my knees, drawing a picture. And if you look carefully, you can make out the top of the picture – and it’s the one we’re in.’ Just in case the analogy isn’t clear, he explains: ‘I think that’s sort of what I’m doing now too. I am writing myself into my own story, and I am telling it from within.’ Well, yes and no.
Self-defeating though the authentic-manuscript game may be, play along with it, take it to its logical conclusion, and you run up against an interesting question of appropriation. There is no framing narrative to explain how we come to be reading Matt’s story. So how did the writings of Matthew Homes (not his real name, he tells us near the end), left in a pile beside a computer in a psychiatric day centre that’s about to be closed down, come to be published as the fiction of a mental health nurse? Maybe Nathan Filer isn’t such a nice man after all, if we’re to believe his novel. But I don’t.