Friday, 16 April 2010

Two Reviews

Donald Ray Pollock – Knockemstiff (2008)[1]

Only once I had finished Knockemstiff, and had given my stomach time to settle, did I think to consult the author’s biography at the front of the book. ‘Donald Ray Pollock,’ it states, ‘grew up in the town of Knockemstiff, Ohio.’ This came as something of a revelation; up until this point I had simply assumed that the title was Pollock’s own creation. It then took the accumulated gravitas of Wikipedia and Google Maps to persuade me of Knockemstiff’s actual, physical existence. Knockemstiff, it turns out, amounts to a small cluster of buildings in rural Ohio, situated just to the west and a bit below Chillicothe in the south of the state. Look it up, it’s a real place.

The people and events, however, are completely fictional – if Pollock’s disclaimers are to be believed. And for this we are to be thankful. The stories in Knockemstiff span the second half of the 20th century, and their sole concern is with the deviant, the stinky, and, more often than not, the criminal lives of the characters who inhabit the ‘holler’. It is a gargantuan puddle of vomit, whose regurgitated chunks we are invited to smell. Yet Pollock’s lean, understated prose gives the book a wry humour, undermining the extremities described. ‘Dynamite Hole’, for example, opens with such matter-of-fact narration that I actually laughed, and then questioned myself for laughing. It begins: ‘I was coming down off the Mitchell Flats with three arrowheads in my pocket and a dead copperhead hung around my neck like an old woman’s scarf when I caught a boy named Truman Mackey fucking his own little sister in the Dynamite Hole.’ Aside from incest, there are also descriptions of mouldy fish finger consumption (or ‘fish stick’ consumption), plastic-doll molestation, and lots and lots of faeces.

On this evidence, it would be easy to dismiss Knockemstiff as voyeuristic rubbish, sensationalising depravation and violence, and doing nothing to dispel the myths surrounding Middle America. But Pollock’s debut plumbs far deeper than this, and to dismiss it on the grounds of revulsion would be to dismiss so much more besides. Bizarrely, these people are still recognisable as human. Despite their distortions and their grotesqueries, we feel for them and can even empathise with the patterns of their failure. As in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, the most pronounced of these failures is the inability to escape the boundaries of their small town upbringing, and the undesirable legacies which the fathers pass on to their sons. As Bobby says in ‘Pills’, ‘It didn’t matter how many miles we travelled by day, we always ended up back in the holler at night ....’ It is pathetic to witness, and the sense of claustrophobia is stifling.

This freakish world is littered with familiarities; Reese’s Butter Cups, Campbell’s soup, the original Godzilla movie ...but the characters themselves are not realistic, so far as the ‘real’ is ever achievable anyway. They are instead our exaggerated counterparts, consumed by our most shameful, heinous aspects, amplified to damning effect. In this respect, Pollock is reminiscent of the southern writer Flannery O’Connor. In Mystery and Manners, O’Connor writes that communicating to her readers is best achieved through shouting, as if ‘to the hard of hearing’, or drawing ‘large and startling figures’ as if for the blind. In the context of such grossness, the rare moments of beauty in Knockemstiff, the only viable means of ‘escape’ the characters ever experience, are doubly affecting. In ‘The Fights’, the simple observation of a deer jumping ‘effortlessly over a sagging fence’ seems almost transcendent.

The danger of regionalism is that it can set up its own limitations, in which the author breathes one massive, halitosis breath of nostalgic anecdotage, completely irrelevant to anyone living outside the county boundaries. Pollock, on the other hand, has taken the few square miles of his fictional Knockemstiff to construct a series of modern-day tragedies – both American tragedies, and tragedies in their own right.

Still, though, if I was a resident of the real Knockemstiff, I would probably take a certain degree of offence.

by Isabel Lockhart Smith

Kobo Abe – The Woman in the Dunes (1964)[1]

“The sands never rested. Greatly but surely they invaded and destroyed the surface of the earth...ceaseless movement that made it inhospitable...What a difference compared with the dreary way human beings clung together year in year out” (14). And off goes the protagonist, for the most part referred to simply as ‘the man’, tired of his mediocre existence as a teacher, in search of a new breed of insect. He wants to immortalise himself, sure, but the real driving force behind it is his newfound philosophy of sand, summarised above.

The Woman in the Dunes is essentially, if you’ll pardon the lazy reference, another novel very much along the lines of The Castle and The Outsider. Add to those books a sprinkle of Japanese history, the conflict between east and west, classicism versus modernisation, dull the philosophical exposition and the quality of the writing, add in a bit of rapeyness, and this is what you’ll get. It is the story of a man who is kidnapped while out exploring the sand dunes that enclose a bizarre village ever on the verge of being consumed by the sand and forced to work for them shovelling sand. If he doesn’t shovel sand they starve him. He shovels sand, he stops, he moans, he ponders existence somewhat shallowly. There is a lot of sand, and the prose, fittingly, is very dry, lacking in flourish.

The man wants to be free, live like the sand, which “represents purity, cleanliness” (27), renege any claims on fixity. Why cling to something arbitrary? Why not accept the ultimate meaninglessness of everything and let go of whatever epistemological certainties you misguidedly buy into? Things with form (structure, logocentricity) are “empty when placed beside sand” (41): “The very fact it had no form was doubtless the highest manifestation of its strength” (31). Of course, take choice away, get dumped in a hole and starved and your perceptions of things are apt to change. The man, trapped with a woman he abuses repeatedly, partly animalistically due to his confinement and partly out of disgust with her passivity, her meek acceptance of her fixed location, brushing sand arbitrarily (Sisyphus, anyone?), begins to break down. “As if he had gone mad, he began to yell – he did not know what, his words were without meaning. He simply though he could make the bad dream come to its senses” (50-1). There we go, tick tick, the emptiness of language. As the story progresses and his escape attempt fails, he predictably comes to either appreciate the charming simplicity of his life in the village, away from all the concerns of the modern world and its equal meaninglessness, or he is crushed, a la 1984, into believing that he wants to be there. He realises that “the beauty of the sand...belonged to death” (183) and here, fighting pointlessly against it, he has a life of sorts.

In theory it is an interesting story. The problem, or one of them at least, is that the novel relies solely on the image, on the symbol. The man is characterised just enough for us to read his semi-philosophical mumblings as believable and the woman is nothing more than a signifier. The freaky village and its inhabitants, the most interesting things in the novel, are left other. To do more with them would change the point of the entire book, of course. Which would arguably have been a good thing. It lacks the depth of the big existential novels one cannot help but compare it to, and doesn’t make up for this lack stylistically. While it’s not worthless, this needlessly elongated short story/weakly extended metaphor does not warrant the kind of praise as its peers, and as such anyone who has even a passing interest in the European philosonovels of the 20th Century is liable to be unmoved.

by Joshua Jones

[1] Kobo Abe, The Woman in the Dunes, trans. E. Dale Saunders (London: Penguin, 2006)

[1] Donald Ray Pollock, Knockemstiff (London: Harvill Secker, 2008)

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