Arguing about Marked Men
Olivia Macassey has written some eloquent criticisms of my review of David Lyndon Brown's new novel Marked Men; I've quoted and replied to her in this post. Buy Marked Men and decide for yourself whether I'm just a prissy socialist realist: even if you agree with me that the book has some shortcomings, you'll be thrilled and gratified by David's beautiful prose.
I can't say I agree with this review at all.
The example you give to support your contention that it is "a novel of surfaces" is a case in point.
I'm guessing you don't simply want the character to say "I sat on the bed and investigated my feelings and thoughts"; you want him to talk you through it - to deliver some kind of angst-ridden interior monologue. For me, the passage illustrates his inner state quite adequately - it shows us rather than telling us.
This non-didactic approach also enables a layer of uncertainty, ambivalence, fluidity - we infer, rather than know - even as readers we don't get to sit there like gods. For instance, again in this example, your interprettation of this scene as a crisis brought on by Sykes "infidelity" is worlds away from what I think it was about!
It's also significant that the passage continues:
Then I unplugged the telephone, climbed into the shower and turning on the water as hot as I could stand it, scoured my skin raw.
For you, the passage describes "the behaviour of a man who mistakes the objects around him for the feelings inside him". But I think that this way of seeing the book is only really possible if you maintain a fairly rigid Cartesian mind/body duality. And you seem to signal an allegience to this a little later in the review, by creating an opposition between balls and bowels on one hand and hearts and brains on the other - placing emotion on the side of the intellect rather than the corporeal.
David Lyndon Brown's work on the other hand refuses this distinction. I think Richard is right to bring up Merleau-Ponty in this context. Why try to enforce a separation between mind and body, between body and body, body and "objects" and world, when Marked Men so clearly establishes the correspondences (metaphors, figures, senses) between them? He does not suppress "the intellectual and emotional life of his characters"; on the contrary he expresses it in all its obliqueness and unknowability in everything his protagonist sees, touches, feels. Paradoxically, your review seems to be complaining of an absence because of what amounts to a saturation of presence.
I'm reminded of the end of Journal d'un curé de campagne: all is grace.
The point isn't that the author shows rather than telling; it's that he doesn't show enough.
On the one hand we have inarticulate characters who have a profound lack of interest in the world and quite nihilistic patterns of behaviour, and on the other hand we have the desire of the novelist to write about love and imbue Sykes with a certain innocence and goodness.
It's not clear to me that either Sykes or the narrator is capable of love. At the very least, we need to know more about them, so that we can understand why they behave in the way they do. Why is Sykes rebelling against the world to the point of death? Why is the narrator so utterly uninterested in everything else, and yet so obsessively drawn to Sykes? The only answers we are left with are essentially biological ones - hence my reference to balls and bowels. I don't accept that love is the same as physical desire, though of course it'd be silly to go to an extreme and think that our brains weren't at some level sexual organs.
Here's a question for readers of the novel: were you shocked when the loveable, innocent Sykes committed murder, and the narrator didn't bat an eyelid? No? Me neither. I think the novel really presents what should be a cataclysmic event as a minor detail. It's certainly much less affecting, in the context of the novel, than Sykes' sexual betrayal of the narrator. This is what I mean when I say there is a moral vacuum at the heart of Marked Men. Such a vacuum wouldn't be a problem if the author wanted to write The Outsider, or a hardboiled Chandler novel, but it is a problem if he wants to tell a story about love, and ask his readers to feel sympathy for Sykes and the narrator.
Of course I'm probably utterly wrong and Olivia is probably utterly right: fight it out in the comments box. David Lyndon Brown is certainly a writer worth arguing about.