Must Reads: Wild Abandon, Ramona Ausubel, A.S. Byatt
New novels: a commune ripe for comedy and absurdity, a village pretends the Holocaust isn’t happening, and A.S. Byatt interprets the great Norse god myths.
There’s still something romantic about the idea of communal living that goes beyond mere urbanite fantasies of washing clothes in a stream or surviving on your garden. It probably has to do with the commonly held thought that such enterprises are doomed from the start, and that the realities of modern Western life must always win out over the rosy-eyed communitarians, in the same way that they have won out over us. So it goes in Wild Abandon, Brit Joe Dunthorne’s sophomore novel, in which the onrushing adolescence of the first generation of children born in a South Wales commune forces the issue of whether their parents were right to try to find a new way of living.
This is a very funny novel but not a comedy. Dunthorne’s characters are fleshed out and human, and the setting itself is never played for laughs. Although the campus is filled with adherents of Mayan eschatology, “proto-gothic” artists, ex-professional chefs, etc., the narrative stays grounded in their interactions and the ways that they hurt each other (accidentally or intentionally), like any normal family.
Don, the commune’s de facto leader and principal ideologue, is the most interesting of the bunch. He is a master of the Nietzschian subterfuge of getting one’s way through martyrdom and feigned meekness, and as such is a pleasure to hate, for both the reader and the other characters. As a leader and a father he is hopelessly inept. An example: after he decides that the only way to reclaim the love of his wife and children is to throw a Woodstock-style festival on the commune’s bucolic grounds, he goes one bumbling step further and, somehow, deems it wise to serve a dish to the vegetarian-leaning crowd that requires the slaughter of a goat and the harvesting of its blood. With his total insensitivity to tragic irony, Don is a literary Michael Scott, begging for you to root against him, only to make you feel bad about it when his comeuppance finally arrives.
At one point in the story, Don declares that his son Albert has reached a certain level of maturity, and as such will be allowed his first experience with the “Personal Instrument,” a Soviet winter hat fitted with sensors and microphones such that the wearer can tightly control which stimuli are allowed to stimulate. Don explains: “It’s about choosing what to take in, rather than just being passive … Everything we see, hear, read, taste, smell even, affects us in ways we can’t fully comprehend.” The device is of Don’s creation, and much like the commune itself, exists as an attempt to tailor reality, to remove its harsh edges. Both constructs, though, fail; Albert’s session with the instrument ends up with him fleeing his father with a gang of ATV-mounted interlopers, and the commune must also eventually accommodate the outside forces that it was set up to resist, or fall apart.
There is a way to read this book as a validation of all of our cynicism toward those who think they can fundamentally “shift the paradigm”; within the walls of the commune people still succumb to their lusts for power (both over each other and over the electrical kind used to run their contraband devices) and each other. However, if a reader is feeling charitable, he might be happier to see it as a defense of idealism. Don, after all, is not a complete fool; he at least knows what he’s up against, and still thinks that it’s worthwhile to resist. And who can fault a man for trying?
If you’ve ever performed in a theater, then you’ve felt that powerful desire to peek at the house before the curtain rises. It’s a dangerous temptation. In trying to see the audience, you risk being seen and ruining the pact you’ve made with them: that for the play’s duration, what happens on stage is absolutely real.
The characters in Ramona Ausubel’s debut novel, No One is Here Except All of Us, make a similar pledge. At the onset of the Second World War, a remote town of Romanian Jews called Zalischik chooses a bizarre method of self-preservation. They pretend the outside world doesn’t exist in hopes that the world will ignore them back. The town scrubs its memory clean. They start history from scratch, metaphorically recreating the heavens by decorating the community barn with images of the night sky. They throw away radios, clocks, and books, because a nascent world would not have such technological and cultural artifacts. And they begin to count the passage of time from the First Day, just like in the book of Genesis.
In fact, the people of Zalischik haven’t created a new world so much as a dream world. The first half of the novel is characterized by abstractions. In fablelike fashion, characters are named for their professions: Healer, Jeweler, Stranger. The town’s governing bodies are humorously absurd, such as The Committee for the Appreciation of Grass and a Committee for What We Have and Where We Have It that includes “Overbearing Mothers-in-Law” in its inventory. And while there are plenty of concrete objects in this dreamscape—“cabbage, rain, hair, arms, mountains”—these often-repeated noun strings have no function; they exist only to represent the idea of concreteness. Ausubel convincingly shows us how fully the villagers believe in their fiction, but she forgets that her readers can see both sides of the curtain. We hunger for a story that moves along by the force of dramatic events, both inside the village and out, not just by the author’s graceful, poetic prose. We haven’t forgotten about the war, even if the village has, and we’re looking for even a hint of foreshadowing about the dangers to come.
Fortunately, one of the villagers does peek through the curtain and the old world comes crashing in. Lena escapes ravaged Zalischik with her children, and it is here, in the waking world, that the story’s emotional power comes to the fore. It’s like we’ve been dropped into a different book. Suddenly, there is narrative drive, a physical and emotional urgency. For example, we’ve barely gotten to know Lena’s older son, Solomon, but when she gives him up to save his life, the effect is devastating. Later, when Lena visits an abandoned mattress that marks the grave of her dead baby, she picks up one of the child’s bones. “This was my chance to touch him one last time,” she says. The line itself risks sentimentality, but the accompanying action—Lena jumping on the mattress clutching the bone to her chest—makes the moment both beautiful and grotesque.
These visceral, concrete actions do exist inside the dream world, as when 11-year-old Lena is newly born (i.e., given over to her barren aunt and uncle) and forced to breastfeed from her aunt’s dry nipples. This moment is strange enough to be the stuff of dreams, but it exemplifies a level of specificity that Ausubel mostly shows us only after she pulls the curtain back. It’s those tangible, concrete moments that we long for throughout the story: a sense that the dream world—the world behind the curtain—is constructed not in simply words and symbols but in three dimensions.
Ragnarok, according to Asgard and The Gods, a book beloved by A.S. Byatt as a young girl, “means the darkening of the Regin, i.e., of the gods, hence the Twilight of the Gods; some however explain the word rock to mean Judgment...”
I’m going to take Ms. Byatt’s word for it that “The Twilight is particularly pleasing, though etymologically wrong...” She leans toward the translation that defines Ragnarok as “judgment or destiny.” And I’ll bet that’s the first time this issue ever came up in the first paragraph of a book review.
Ragnarok, The End of the Gods is an amazing little book; you can almost hear lightning crackle when you open it and the clap of thunder when you put it down. It isn’t a novel or critical work, at least not like any produced by Byatt in her nearly half-a-century career. Her own novels, she tells us, “have threads of myth in their narrative, which are an essential part of the thought and the form of the books, and the way the characters take in the world.” But I recall nothing in Possession, Angels & Insects, Babel Tower, or her other books that seems to presage this one.
When invited by the Scottish house Canongate to contribute to a series of books on myths, Byatt says, “I knew immediately which myth I wanted to write. It should be Ragnarok, the myth to end all myths, the myth in which the gods themselves were all destroyed.” She was first exposed to the power of Norse mythology when, at age 5, she was evacuated away from the London Blitzkrieg to the “ordinary paradise of the English countryside,” where she first read Asgard and the Gods, a work adapted and simplified from a scholarly tome by Dr. Wilhelm Wagner. From that moment “the thin child,” as she identifies herself, “was enamored.” She read volumes of other mythologies, such as the Greek myths, “but she herself read them as she read fairy stories ... all these offered the pleasure to the mind that the unreal offers what is briefly more real than the visible world can ever be. But they didn’t live in her, and she didn’t live in them.”
She found the Bible “less interesting and less exciting” and preferred the Norse sagas where “the gods themselves were judged and found wanting.” The fairy stories of Hans Christian Anderson were nuanced stories with characters, personalities and feelings in them, authored stories, works of the imaginations. “I felt he [Anderson] was trying to frighten or hurt me as a reader. I still think he was.”
Though she didn’t “believe in” the Norse myths, they intrigued her in a way that no other kind of literature did. Unlike the almighty God of the Jews and Christians, the Norse gods weren’t immortal, even in the sense of the Greek gods, and their power was finite. She found in them “a sense in which the Norse Gods are peculiarly human ... They are human because they are limited and stupid. They are greedy and enjoy fighting and playing games ... They know Ragnarok is coming but are incapable of imagining any way to fend it off, or change the story. They know how to die gallantly but not how to make a better world.”
The thin child’s favorite was Loki, the shapeshifter god of mischief. Loki was “amusing and dangerous and neither good nor evil.” Thor, to the young Byatt, “was the classroom bully raised to the scale of growling thunder and whipping rain.” Odin was “Power.” But Loki “was an outsider, with a need for the inordinate ... Alone among all these beings he had humor and wit.”
So does Byatt. Even as a child she was able to make the connections between the myths that inspired her and their modern manifestation in the bombers that were devastating her country: “At night, in her blacked-out bedroom, the thin child heard sounds in the sky, a distant whine, a churning of propellers, thunder hanging overhead and then going past.” She asks herself, “Who were the good and wise Germans who had written Asgard and the Gods ... whose was the storytelling voice that gripped her imagination and tactfully suggested explanations.”
To Byatt, all such questions are rhetorical; she’s intrigued by them but doesn’t seem particularly interested in the answers. I wish she had been moved as an adult many years later to pursue the answer to at least one of these questions. The coming disaster of Ragnarok “felt different from the Christians’ accounts of the end of things with the undead god returning to judge the quick and the dead. Here the gods themselves were judged and found wanting. Who judged?”
Who, indeed? I’d love it if this question to became a subject for Byatt the novelist.