'Spill Simmer Falter Wither' by Sara Baume (who's website has pictures of dead animals, so I think I can see where some of the images in the book have come from) is a most unsettling book. It is sad, without any redeeming moments. The blurb on the back describes it as showing 'the restorative power of friendship' but I did not get that *at all*. It concerns the life of Ray, who describes himself as 'old' but is only 57, who has lived his entire life in his father's house (which he never refers to as his home), utterly without companionship, who adopts an equally damaged dog.
"I'm a boulder of a man. Shabbily dressed and sketchily bearded. Steamrolled features and iron-filing stubble. When I stand still, I stoop, weighted down by my own lump of fear. When I move, my clodhopper feet and mismeasured legs make me pitch and clump. My calloused kneecaps pop in and out of my shredded jeans and my hands flail gracelessly, stupidly. I've always struggled with my hands. I've never known exactly what to do with them when they're not being flailed." (p.11)
She captures something so utterly pitiful that you are bound to read on with horrified fascination, wondering how a person could feel this way and carry on.
"Sometimes I see the sadness in you, the same sadness that's in me. It's in the way you sigh and stare and hang your head. It's in the way you never wholly let your guard down and take the world I've given you for granted. My sadness isn't a way I feel but a thing trapped inside the walls of my flesh, like a smog. It takes the sheen off everything. It rolls the world in soot. It saps the power from my limbs and presses my back into a stoop." (p.51)
"When I was about as tall as the letter slot and riding in the back of my father's car, we were passing through town one day, driving along the main street, and I remember seeing a woman through the window, standing in her doorway. After a moment she turned and went back inside, closing the door behind her, and then of course I couldn't see her any more. I know it sounds like nothing much, but it was the first time I realised that other people's lives go on. All the time, out of sight and without me. It was the first time I realised that everything just goes on and on and on. Regardless, relentless." (p.98)
He avoids contact with the people in the village, having the same meaningless exchange with the man in the shop, always wary and self-conscious of his own difference:
"They've long since marked me down as strange, a strange man, I am a strange man. And it's because of my strangeness that they make a special point of knowing where I live. And they wait, and have been waiting all the time I've been in this house in this village, all my life, for strange things to happen for which they can finger me, for which they can have me and my threatening strangeness removed." (p.117)
The dog attacks another dog, it's what he's been bred and trained to do, and when the dog warden comes to take him away the man panics, and they run away.
"It's hard to learn anew how to make it through from dawn to dark without all of the props and pointers inside me father's house. Without plant-watering, yard-pottering, chair-rocking and channel-zapping. I expected it would be exciting; I expected that the freedom from routine was somehow greater than the freedom to determine your own routine. I wanted to get up in the morning and not know exactly what I was going to do that day. But now that I don't, it's terrifying." (p.135)
The driving, driving, driving is as meaningless and repetitive as his former existence. They are going nowhere, running away, but towards nothing, just round in circles. The few times he encounters other human beings, people who show any sign of friendliness, he backs away, and is afraid. He has become attached to the dog, but the dog is a nasty little thing and does not improve with companionship, does not appear to reciprocate his loyalty.
Looking at the pictures on Sara's website, there is even the porpoise which appears in the book, you see a morbid fascination with death, which comes through in the man's thoughts:
"Hares and mice, wagtail and rooks, squirrels and mink. Every kind of creature every kind of killed. Eviscerated and decapitated, lobotomised and disembowelled. Sometimes the only remains are a puff of uprooted plumage, pale down dancing in the whoomph of air from passing vehicles, no sign of the bird from which it was bashed loose. The people inside the grim reaper cars don't care, they have places to go, they keep going. Now we circle the roundabout and circle again, and as we circle, I watch the traffic. I wonder where everyone is going. And I wonder if any of the road-kill creatures actually wanted to die, and threw themselves beneath the speeding wheels. A lethargic swallow who couldn't bear the prospect of flying all the way back to Africa again. An insomniac hedgehog who couldn't stand the thought of lying awake all winter with no one to talk to." (p.148)
There is a tiny moment when they find themselves at a farmer's market and he is offered a sample of tapenade on tiny bread. He takes some and is overwhelmed, as if really tasting something for the first time. He says he feels like an ordinary person, doing an ordinary thing, and when the girl smiles he feels it is real. I wanted it to mean something, for him to see a way to connect with others, but it is too late and he is too far away. Later:
"I'm still holding the jar-shaped paper bag in my hand. I place it down beside me. But as I place it down I start to wonder if maybe I didn't seem to regular in the market after all, inconspicuous, unsuspicious. Maybe the girl at the tapenade stall was conniving against us all along. Maybe what we've been given is a poisoned dose, a jar reserved for those who seem strange, those who walk the streets unarmed with tiny screens. Now I knock the bag onto the floor mat with a sweep of my fist, now I lean over and push it beneath the passenger seat." (p.219)
I am not sure what to conclude. It is a beautifully written book, very intense, but I found myself sucked in to the man's character, there is no relief from him because it follows his thoughts. You seek an explanation for how and why he ended up like this, but it is not really forthcoming, and his acceptance of his existence is almost the most soul-crushing part of the tale. I would probably avoid it if you are having worries about the meaning of life.