Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The Silence of the Land: On Beastings, by Ben Myers

Perhaps because more and more of my own work seems to deal with characters who are estranged from their surroundings, who, to whatever degree of consciousness, retreat into themselves, or otherwise into a secure, controlled location, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to their opposite: stories in which characters are not only intimately related to and rooted in their natural landscape, but in which there are even characters which physically (and psychologically) represent facets of that landscape. That is, I’ve found myself increasingly (re-)drawn to folktales and myths, and contemporary iterations of same.

(Art by Bissette & Totleben)

For instance, there’s a stretch of the country road behind my house which runs parallel to a brook; a narrow, babbling V in the hillside; a kind of natural gutter. Towards the upper end of this stretch is a tree, which, shrouded with vines and creepers as it is, often reminds me of the comics character, Swamp Thing; his organic, sinuous, imposing design.

For most of its length, though, that small valley is a common target for fly-tippers and, as a result, is rarely as easy on the eyes as, to hear it murmur, you’d think it might be, when you near the barb-wire and peer over the edge.  

So, sometimes I find myself imagining how it would be if the Swamp Thing really did rise up from the boggy earth around the top of that brook, and, in his role as the ‘Guardian of the Green’, begin to seek vengeance. This occupies me happily for a moment or two. I picture a vandal getting the fright of their life; a big green hand slapping them silly.  

But the Swamp Thing, removed from the context of those comic books, never does rise up and take umbrage, and part of me – the younger part, still wishful and naive – is always just a little disappointed.

Part of the purpose of such comic books (indeed, of much fiction), of course, is to act as a bridge between dream (or nightmare) and reality, between hope (or fear) and realisation; implicit in that purpose is the acknowledgement that such realisation seldom occurs in our actual lives, certainly rarely in ways we can predict or control. These stories exist, like most human creations, to fulfil a sheltering, escapist need – in this case, to explain the unexplained, or to make something that’s already known that much easier to stomach, or to balance out and combat some elemental wrong. Or even, sometimes, to personify accident and chance, to give a malicious agency to hapless mistakes. And thereby to provide a kind of comfort, or at least a cushioning of the blow.

In the latter category, in a way, and following on from Swamp Thing, I’m thinking of Sara Maitland’s brilliant short story, ‘Moss Witch’.

Likewise, in keeping with the idea of avatars representing aspects of the natural world, there are numerous examples to be found in the back catalogue of Studio Ghibli, from My Neighbour Totoro to Spirited Away to Princess Mononoke.

In Benjamin Myers’ latest novel, Beastings (Bluemoose Books), however, what we are given is not so much the fantasy itself (vengeful, beautiful, hopeful or otherwise), but the characters – flesh and blood, physical, fragile, mortal – who both harbour and hinder those fantasies. People who are tied to/constrained by their environment, but whose psychological links with it – with the superstitions and myths that might in other times have bound them to it in a different way – are, with increasing rapidity, coming apart.

It is not a story designed for comfort, but for confrontation.  

By this, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s written in abrasive, in your face fashion. Rather, that it shies away neither from the harshness of the environment, nor the consequences of actions, nor from an acknowledgement of the fluctuating and often shaky nature of dreams – an acknowledgment, that is, of the very gaps, the gulfs, that many folktales seek either to cover or to give demonic form.

What complicates this, however, and makes the narrative more than simply a very good, if extremely severe, slice of historical realism – and almost, at some sections, a kind of body horror piece transplanted to 19th Century Cumbria – is that there are characters, almost at every step, who could be mistaken for such spirits; who, in another story, might well have a more fantastical, magic-realist dimension.

There is, for example, a hermit who, in his seeming benevolence and loquacity – not to mention his outlandish appearance – might in other hands veer into Tom Bombadil territory.

And there is a priest, who, for his talk and intentions, could be an agent of supernatural evil.

And there is the young woman that the priest is chasing – fleeing across the fells and pikes and moorland with a baby that isn’t hers. A mute young woman, who becomes more intimate with the landscape than anybody else – who depends upon that landscape and what it can provide for her very survival, and who therefore comes to echo that landscape at the times in which it is most barren or, occasionally, most ripe.

There is even, and especially, that landscape itself, which is evoked with a fullness of the kind that usually makes people claim it as ‘a character in its own right’, even though it is, emphatically, nothing of the kind. Although it impacts on proceedings, this is in a haphazard way – neither consciously charitable nor openly merciless. Instead, it seems voiceless, stripped of its spirits and spokespeople. And so, yes, the girl on the run does, in some ways, come to fill this role, to mirror and represent it, to the point where it is almost as if nature itself is being pursued, and holds the dark secrets the priest wants kept under wraps.

But, really, the muteness of both just means there is an increasing lack of understanding, a communication breakdown, which makes her escape all the more difficult.   

Of course, talking about the story in this almost abstract, theoretical manner is in some ways the same thing – it risks taking you out of the story, of the immediacy of its developments and deviations and shocks. But, for those who haven’t read it yet, I don’t want to give these away. The communication breakdown that the novel charts and interrogates relies on ideas of repression and withholding, evasion and denial; the inability to accept the truth and relevance (or irrelevance) of one’s past. Spoilers, I feel, would kind of bugger this up.

What I do hope to get across, though, is just how worthwhile it is to read this book and discover what’s being withheld, and how, and why – and what that perhaps says about us, and about both the ways we used to live and the ways we live now. About the relative promises and pitfalls of a life given over to running away from our problems and fears; to hoping that our mistakes and our messes will just somehow cease mattering, or be taken care of by/be blamed on somebody else.    

On the issue of its quality, and the effectiveness with which it engages these issues, I’ve seen a few other reviewers comparing Myers’ work here with Cormac McCarthy, and, whilst comparisons can often get in the way of appraising and appreciating a given work’s individual merit, as much as they offer valuable context, I think there’s validity to this one. Both Beastings and the finest, grimmest of McCarthy’s work (so, most of it), achieve a mythic quality without being myths, and present themselves as tales of (relatively, with a few glaring exceptions) ordinary folk, without being folktales. Whereas those two forms of storytelling seek to bridge the gaps between dream and waking, between superstition and sense, between self and place, these works operate within those spaces; or, rather, at the edge of them, looking out into the void.

The settings in these stories are often solid to the point of being monumental – think of the red, almost Martian deserts in Blood Meridian, the petrified forests in The Road; in this book, consider the mountains, the moors, the lakes themselves (as far removed from Wordsworth’s rendering of them as could be) – and yet they have no voices, no spokespeople. Or, if they do, they seldom last long. They are indifferent, and only seem to grow moreso the more the fates of the characters depend on their offering shelter, or providing food.

In Beastings, Myers gives us a view of a time of profound transition – the beginning of a society’s estrangement from its environment; the supplanting of its old, almost organic superstitions with new, equally-convenient if more outwardly rational lies, suitable for the demands of an urbanised age. Along with McCarthy’s work, it echoes other recent triumphs of this kind, such as John Hillcoat’s film, The Proposition – and yet it never feels in thrall to them, or as though it’s been written specifically and cynically to fit that mould. 

Rather, it is its own animal, and Myers tracks its passage unfailingly and unflinchingly, all the way to the jolting, vital bleakness of its end.    

Folktales and myths, of course, still have a crucial place and relevance in our culture, not least for making such grim outcomes somehow more palatable, for helping us assimilate them into our view of the world. This is, I think, why I've found myself turning to them lately. 

But sometimes the inverse sneaks up on you - you discover a need for a work which refuses this fantasy, which forces you to look at the gap that it leaves, the uncleaned wound, and makes you really wonder what, if anything, can be done to help it heal; that makes you, paradoxically, want to reconnect with your surroundings at the same time as you aim to come to terms with their indifference; that, plain and simply, makes you want to take more responsibility for your life and your actions and the place that you fill in the world. 

Here, then, is a book that more than meets this need. 


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