Friday 9 September 2016

The Many

'The Many' by Wyl Menmuir is on the Booker longlist and I read about it in several places, so it was one that I picked up in Waterstones the other week. 

I am not sure that spoilers is the right warning, because not much happens in this book but in order to say anything about it I need to disclose what kind of nothing happens. I did not feel surprised by the denouement of the story because as it went on I began to realise that the whole story is a kind of metaphor. This is not a story about a man buying a house in a tiny isolated fishing village. The blurb on the back makes it sound like a weird psychological thriller, and it's definitely not that either. The house is not a house, the boats are not boats, the fish not fish and the people not people. Nothing is what it seems. I felt the entire time like I was reading a bad dream and in reality that is what it is. 

Timothy buys a long neglected house in the village thinking he will bring his wife to live in this place they once visited. The village is hostile to his presence, though in time he befriends Ethan one of the few remaining fishermen. The boats go out but they do not catch anything; their fishing grounds are demarcated by a row of anchored shipping tankers on the skyline, the waters polluted by mysterious poisons. Timothy persuades Ethan to take the boat out beyond the tankers and they catch shoals of deformed fish which are then purchased by a rather sinister government official. Timothy's attempts to renovate the house are half-hearted and ineffectual; he finds himself distracted by questions about Perran, the long dead man who used to live there, questions nobody seems willing or able to answer. 

Timothy is grieving and the story is his struggle to cope with and make sense of what he is experiencing: the house he is clearing out, his inability to communicate with his wife (the 21st century 'no phone signal' metaphor), the unwelcoming and suspicious people, the cold and dangerous sea, the flood followed by the cracks as the village itself seems to be disintegrating, his desperate and thwarted attempts to leave, are all part of this struggle. He starts out with some determination, trying to forge a new normal life out of the desolate shell of a house, but his efforts wane and he becomes ill and cold, lonely and afraid, the village become even more threatening, eventually destroying all his feeble attempts at reconstruction. The writing often has the same confused and disorientating feeling that dreams have, without logical sequences or predictability in the events or behaviour of the people. The whole atmosphere is dark and threatening, an abiding sense of unease. I just realised that it is written in the present tense, which is probably why it is so intense, as if it is happening in the present moment. It is almost impossible to describe but the book left me very disconcerted and confused, as if I just woke up and definitely didn't want to get back to sleep.

"The house has not been cleared, the agent had said to him from behind a wide empty expanse of desk, and the words come back to him as he lies back in the bath. Timothy gets out of the bath quickly and wraps a towel around himself, and not bothering to dry off, he goes down to the kitchen. With a growing puddle of water gathering around his feet, he stands in front of the kitchen units and takes the handles of the cupboards nearest to him in both hands, opening both units simultaneously. There is the briefest moment in which he feels the open cupboards retain their darkness for a fraction of a second longer than they should  before they allow the light in. Both cupboards are empty, and so too are the drawers in the kitchen and the small pantry cupboard by the fridge. All he finds is yellowed newspaper lining the bottoms of all the drawers and shelves. He takes some of the paper out of one of the drawers and, on the paper that is still legible and that does not disintegrate as he pulls it up, he sees the articles are written in a language he does not recognise and the pictures that accompany the articles are blurred, as though the hand that took the photograph was shaking at the time they were taken. Going through all the rooms he finds the small items of furniture that have been there all along and the items he has brought to the house himself, but not sign of any clothes that were there before he arrived, no personal belongings. His search becomes more and more frantic but he finds nothing that could give him any clue about the previous owner, as though all the evidence of who he was has been erased." (p.92-3)

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