Book Review (February 2020)

 

‘accomplished, dark and troubling . . . It finds beauty and some measure of reason in the midst of chaos and tells us about it in prose suffused with a fractured, dislocating and chaotic beauty’

 

THE WAY THINGS END

by CHARLES DAVID

REVIEWED by JON GOWER

WE know the world is complex and strange, a fact well expressed by the poet Louis MacNeice who said ‘World is crazier and more of it than we think, Incorrigibly plural’,  but this novel, composed of interlacing and interconnected stories suggests it’s even odder, stranger even than our imaginings.

For in this mind-stretching Moebius strip of a debut novel by American writer David a giant whale lands outside a house in Arizona where it’s chain-sawed apart by a man called Earn, and this despite the hideous odours of near instant putrefaction in the heat. As if that wasn’t strange enough a man is found inside, a sleeping Romanian to boot. 

Another tale concerns Elena, a Jewish girl given to storytelling as a way of being dealing with displaced from her family during the Second World War. Her stories nestle away in the folds of this novel’s larger story, full of the appurtenances of fairy tales – tall buildings made of gold, past ruins where old kingdoms had stood and a fisherman who goes for a ride on the back of a giant nautilus shell. 

Elena’s often charming stories later reappear in the hands of a war veteran who illustrates them and uses them to chat up a waitress in a diner.  He finds the nerve to ask her out but he doesn’t live long enough to enjoy the date.

Motifs

There is a Russian doll quality to the book’s construction as stories, countries, characters and motifs disappear and reappear, not least a little girl in yellow who reminds one of the girl in Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past,’ as well as the mantric warning ‘Doll Baby is coming . . .’, words that recur as if on a diabolic tape loop.

The Way Things End is bookended with the story of a blues guitarist and hobo called Roosevelt Sands, a man on the run, blood on his hands. The plangent song he sings at the beginning of the book resonates throughout because Sands senses that he has found the key to all things as  ‘The music reached into every world, into the cells of the grass and its roots, down lengthy dark passages where the tiniest of creatures dwelled, the worms and the ants and the fossils which had lived long before any man stepped upon the soil.’

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He plays the song and the universe shifts as a consequence, as if the music of the spheres has been made dissonant by the world and its dark affairs.  There is the Vietnam War, for instance, brought bloodily to life in descriptions which are both visceral and powerful. Earn, he of the earlier whale-cutting duties, sees his friend Gary Mitchell killed, and killed in a flash:

There was Mitchell walking and then there was white. Then Mitchell was on the ground in two places, raggedly sheared in half at the waist, his trunk up in the weeds, his legs on the opposite side of the path, twisted like vines.

This is not the only violence in the book: it’s present as a dark and threatening undertow throughout.  There is a horrific stabbing in an alleyway, an act made worse by its seeming randomness.  A murderer is thrown into a well where pieces of burning wood rain down upon him. A man kills a mother and her child.  An angel is graphically hacked to pieces in a bathroom.

Dark

The pages of ‘The Way Things End’ seem steeped in blood, anxiety and disquiet.

As the book’s title portends, this is also book about things falling apart, anticipating, perhaps, the end of days as even the known universe, or universes become uncertain things, as perhaps it always was.

In a sense it is a sort of handbook to impending apocalypse, alerting us to how crazy it is out there, mapping out the madness.

Chaotic beauty

This is an accomplished, dark and troubling tome, not least because the wilder passages of fantasy seem decidedly plausible in the times in which we live.

It finds beauty and some measure of reason in the midst of chaos and tells us about it in prose suffused with a fractured, dislocating and chaotic beauty.  It finds patterns in things, which, after all, is what good novelists do.

*The Way Things End by Charles David is published by Tartarus Press as a sewn hardback, with a silk ribbon marker, 234 pages, price £35  ISBN 978-1-912586-17-2. Ebook £4.99. It can be ordered through Tartarus, an independent UK publisher, whose website is here: www.tartaruspress.com

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Jon Gower (left) is an award-winning Wales-based author of more than thirty books and a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Swansea. His most recent book is The Murenger & Other Stories published by Three Impostors press whose website is here: www.threeimpostors.co.uk