Reviewed: This Is the Way by Gavin Corbett

Fish out of water.

This Is the Way
Gavin Corbett
Fourth Estate, 250pp, £14.99

Two houses, both alike in enmity: the Sonaghans and the Gillaroos, Irish traveller families, have been feuding for time out of mind. Sonaghan and Gillaroo are also the names of two trout species peculiar to Lough Melvin in north-western Ireland. Our narrator, Anthony Sonaghan, is the son of a rare union between the clans. His Gillaroo mother tells him the myth of the feud’s origins, in which the lake dries up and the fish (thanks to divine intervention from the Blessed Mother) become men, fighting for space at the bottom of the lake. The tale is part of Anthony’s cultural heritage but his Sonaghan father is angry with his wife for keeping the old legends alive:

He says I knew by the sound of your  voice you were telling them stories. I could hear it through the wall. I don’t want no stories in this house no more. They want stories they can read books he says.

Although Anthony’s father tries to break the cycle of feuding, the book opens with Anthony on the run from the Gillaroos, afraid for his life. For over a year, he hides out in a rented room in an old Dublin town house. After six months, he meets Judith Neill, who works in the university library transcribing folk tales and oral history. “I seen a notice said this lady wanted people to tell their stories. She was collecting them from people like me.” When Judith discovers that Anthony is literate, she encourages him to write for himself.

Anthony’s voice is a star feature of the This Is the Way, which is the Irish writer Gavin Corbett’s second novel. At first glance, he appears to be speaking to us, in the seductive colloquial patter employed by so many descendants of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finnand The Catcher in the Rye. Yet the prose doesn’t flow like speech should: there are few elisions and little punctuation, lending it a strained, staccato quality in spite of its lyricism. It doesn’t sound like speech; it sounds like writing – from someone who isn’t a writer. That extra layer of vocal complexity aligns the novel more closely with Russell Hoban’s virtuosic Riddley Walker.

Corbett’s hero, like Hoban’s, is telling his story from the edge of literacy, with none of Holden Caulfield’s rolling vernacular ease. This makes for slower reading but the rewards are worth it. Anthony’s stilted eloquence gives us unique views in two directions: on to the murky world of traveller lore and on to modern-day Dublin from a near-outsider’s perspective.

Anthony is perched between these two worlds. When his horribly mutilated uncle Arthur seeks refuge with him, he is irritated by the older man and impatient of his disdain for modern medicine. Yet he is still impressed by the traveller mystique surrounding Arthur, who is said to have started a war in Switzerland and met the king of Russia.

Like the best pseudo-naive art, This Is the Way conceals formal beauty behind an illusion of formlessness. Anthony’s retellings of traveller myths and his recent past mingle with his accounts of his wanderings through Dublin, apparently at random; however, an elegant narrative structure is at work, leading us up to a powerful climax.

In the end, this fresh and funny novel is a devastating love story – one that comes upon you by stealth and stays with you long after you’ve finished reading.

Claire Lowdon is an assistant editor of the arts journal Areté

Gavin Corbett.

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear