27 October 2008

House of shades

The Gate of Air: A Ghost Story
by James Buchan (Maclehose Press)

The hero of this singular novel is first seen with an estate agent called Harriet, who is showing him round country houses. He is introduced with the curious phrase “Jim Smith, as he called himself”. If he has another, real name, the reader never learns it. He is a Londoner, who used to do something in the software industry, and is repeatedly described as “cold”. He seems almost to be an experiment in how far the writer can burn off conventional signals for personality and likeability in his leading character, leaving only a fiercely observational intelligence to guide the story. And yet, as we ought to expect from the writer of complexly magnificent novels such as Heart’s Journey In Winter and A Good Place to Die, Buchan has his reasons. There turns out to be a good excuse for that apparently bland surname, which reaches back into Roman mythology. And what starts as a surgically obsidian comedy of town versus country manners becomes something far stranger, as layers are peeled off the palimpsest of the English landscape, and of literature itself.

Jim buys Paradise Farm, which comes with a magnificently surly worker, John Walker. He “smelled of grass cuttings and fag ash”. Like a contemporary Jean de Florette, Jim learns the rudiments of agriculture, and meets the locals. With the exception of the blind old Lord Bolingbroke, whose dissipated grace is wonderfully evoked, they are enjoyably monstrous — the seductive Mrs Dark, in particular, turns out to be aptly named during a splendidly awful dinner party at the house of the local billionaire and his trophy wife. Another diner is skewered thus: “There was nothing contrary to social reason in Glory Gainer’s evil glare.”

A large part of the novel’s subject is the country itself, treated in modes both satirical and philosophical. Jim comes across his cow, got up by John Walker for a show: “Her coat was brushed, watered, chalked and painted, so that she looked not like a cow but a sort of bovine prostitute.” But he also has deeper thoughts about country pursuits: “He supposed that what had begun as a distraction had overrun an entire way of life, and pastimes such as fox hunting and pheasant shooting had become the chief business of existence. It was as if some mysterious core to this way of life had vanished, leaving just the shell of its recreation.” Much of the book stands as an elegy for such a disappearing or already disappeared way of life, in land encroached upon by new-build suburbs, “where all relations of space and time had been pulverised by the automobile”. But for the moment, some serenity is still possible: “Here there was a style of British life, inarticulate and contented and withdrawn.”

Or it would be possible, were there not also a haunting in progress. Paradise Farm and its environs seem to be inhabited by the shade of a woman who attended hippy parties there in the 1960s, and who might herself have been the incarnation of a goddess. Buchan writes the apparitions in a dazzlingly indirect style, conjuring a thick weather of foreboding, as something passes by “the hissing gloom by the window” or a door opens onto “an orphan grey light”. In such an atmosphere, Jim does well to acquire a dog, called Argos, who will live heartbreakingly up to his name.

Jim’s own continuing inscrutability, or purposeful blankness, at the heart of the story’s engine might put off some readers. but it also seems to be part of an argument. At one point, he is made to consider questions that cast him as a modern-day Hume:

What if there were no principles of nature, only habitual conjunctions that people labelled cause and effect? What if there were no history, only the supposition that the past resembled the present, and the future would be more of the same? What if there were no self, just a compendium of sensations, impressions, wishes, fears, regrets?

What if, indeed. There is a problem, though, to do with the inconsistency of Jim’s pre-modern lack of “character”. The narrator insists repeatedly on Jim’s lack of culture, the fact (already difficult to swallow) that before the events of the novel he has never even set foot in a bookshop. It is surprising, then, that he is able to understand the ancient Greek spoken to him in a dream, particularly since later on he has to learn the Greek alphabet, along with Latin grammar, from the internet. A few pages after that, he has suddenly acquired an easy familiarity with ancient literature, as on a trip to London, city of “long-legged girls”, he visualizes himself as “Tantalus in the Odyssey”.

If Jim’s rapid transformation into classical scholar-detective is not entirely persuasive, it does set up a richly compelling finale, as he translates the hellish mottoes above his lintels and burrows through the past of his land. Jim thinks of himself as Tantalus at a point where he has not realised that he is really an unlucky version of Odysseus — as his dog might have told him. His Penelope, on the other hand, understands this all too well, in a climactic recognition scene between lovers that is as powerful as it is unexpected, with Buchan brilliantly planting a silent, quasi-telepathic conversation running in parallel with the spoken words. The book’s very final paragraph is nothing short of magical.

Perhaps out of confusion as to what they have on their hands, the publishers suggest that The Gate of Air is a “Victorian” “fireside spine-chiller”. Readers expecting that will be disappointed, for it is something like the opposite. The Gate of Air is perhaps not among Buchan’s very best work, but he is a novelist who takes no literary convention for granted, and each book he writes is a discovery.