Three sides to every story: book review / The Pyramid by William Golding

 

(c) Faber

 

William Golding’s 1967 novel The Pyramid was not the book the blurb on its back cover had led me to believe it was.  “Written with great perception and subtlety,” said the blurb, “The Pyramid is Golding’s funniest and most light-hearted novel, which probes the painful awkwardness of the late teens, the tragedy and farce of life in a small community and the consoling power of music.”

 

Having dealt with such hallucinogenic (and at times mentally exhausting) scenarios as a prehistoric one where gentle and semi-telepathic Neanderthals were exterminated by newly-appeared and ruthless Homo Sapiens (in The Inheritors), and a medieval one where a visionary and increasingly demented cathedral dean oversaw the building of a towering and tottering spire (in The Spire), and of course a desert-island one where a bunch of marooned private schoolboys descended into savagery (in Lord of the Flies), Golding could surely be forgiven for wanting to take a break from the heaviness, put his feet up for a while and write something light and wryly humorous about teenage frustrations and pretensions in a sleepy English country town.  However, I hadn’t gone far into The Pyramid before I realised it was going to be a darker and more challenging book than I’d expected.

 

Firstly, it should be explained that The Pyramid isn’t properly a novel, but a trilogy of novellas with the same central character and first-person narrator, and the same setting: Oliver, son of a lower-middle-class chemist employed in a doctor’s dispensary, and Stilbourne, the English Home Counties town where Oliver has grown up during the 1920s.  The supporting cast, which varies slightly from story to story, consists of Oliver’s parents and neighbours in Stilbourne.  Only in its central novella does The Pyramid supply the light-hearted fun that’s promised by the back-cover blurb.  I found the first and third novellas rather bleak.

 

In the first and longest story, Oliver is 18 years old and is sitting out the final summer before he leaves Stilbourne and begins undergraduate life at Oxford University.  He’s first seen moping, in classical teenager fashion, about the great imagined love of his life, Imogen Grantley, who comes from a higher-class family “with money to spend” and is soon to be married.  Thoughts of Imogen vanish, however, when events throw Oliver into the company of another local girl, Evie Babbacombe, who “was the Town Crier’s daughter and came from the tumbledown cottages of Chandler’s Close.”

 

The fact that, in the town’s social pecking order, Evie is as below Oliver as he is below his beloved Imogen is underlined by an observation he makes about Evie’s eccentric mother: “At normal times Mrs Babbacombe radiated a social awareness and friendliness that was indomitable, though seldom reciprocated…”  She’d make “a gracious, sideways bow to a person entirely out of her social sphere.  Naturally these greetings were never acknowledged or even mentioned; since no one could tell whether Mrs Babbacombe was mad, and believed herself entitled to make them, or whether she came from some fabulous country where the Town Crier’s wife and the wife of the Chief Constable might be on terms of intimacy.”

 

Oliver becomes infatuated with Evie – “In the conflict between social propriety and sexual attraction there was never much doubt which side would win” – though it’s a physical infatuation only.  When they enter into a relationship, of sorts, he has no intention of extending it beyond the start of autumn when he’s due to arrive among Oxford’s ivory towers and dreaming spires.  Accordingly, he is panic-stricken when the possibility arises that he may have made Evie pregnant.

 

The Pyramid’s opening tale is in many ways its most troubling, because we see Oliver unconsciously treating Evie with as much social contempt as others in the town – for example, Robert Ewan, caddish son of the local doctor, who has his own designs on Evie – treat him and his parents.  And when he first forces himself upon Evie on a wooded slope overlooking Stilbourne, for all his teenage clumsiness and cluelessness, we find his behaviour repellent.  Later, Evie spells out to him just what it was he did to her: “It all began…  when you raped me…  Up at the top of the hill…  In the clump.”

 

After that, the second novella in The Pyramid provides some welcome humour.  Set during the holiday period at the end of his first term at Oxford, it tells how Oliver, back in Stilbourne, gets roped into participating in a production called The King of Hearts, staged by Stilbourne Operatic Society (SOS), for which his mother plays piano.

 

Even here, the town’s class system – its virtual caste system – throws a long shadow: “…even if we had had a mass of talent and a vast stage, orchestra pit and auditorium, there would still have been an overriding limitation, the social one.  None of the college’s closed society was available; and Sergeant Major O’Donovan helped us only because he was right on the fringe of it.  Then again, at least half of Stilbourne’s population was ineligible, since it lived in places like Chandler’s Close and Miller’s Lane, and was ragged.  Though Evie sang and was maddeningly attractive, she would never have been invited to appear, not even as a member of the chorus.  Art is a meeting point; but you can only go so far.”

 

To produce their musical, the society has hired a professional called Evelyn De Tracey, whom Oliver’s besotted mother describes as “a charming man” who’s “taken all difficulties in his stride.”  Unexpectedly, Oliver gets taken into De Tracey’s confidence and he discovers the producer to be a drunken reprobate who quietly regards Stillbourne Operatic Society as the parochial, petty-bourgeoisie no-hopers that, frankly, they really are.  Making things more interesting still is the fact that Oliver, who has been drafted in to play a gypsy fiddler, has to share a stage with his old love Imogen and her new husband, Norman Claymore.  Claymore’s singing voice is described as sounding “like a gnat”.  His ego, however, is considerably larger than a gnat.

 

In its third and final episode, The Pyramid has Oliver returning to Stilbourne many years later, a successful man who has risen in the social hierarchy.  A chance meeting sets him reminiscing about the woman who taught him music when he was a child, an aloof and free-spirited woman called Clara ‘Bounce’ Dawlish who was never held in high esteem by Stilbourne’s respectable society.  Bounce scandalised the town by getting involved with a humble Welsh chauffeur called Henry Williams – “poor, hard-working, eager to improve himself, a lover of music and a first-class mechanic.”  Ironically, during the decades that followed, Henry – who represents technological and financial modernity – opened a garage in Stilbourne, built up a business and became its most powerful inhabitant, thus disrupting the established order.

 

As I embarked on this final novella, I expected what I was reading to become a sweet, wistful meditation on the impossibility of conducting a romance across the class divide in a closed-minded community.  However, the story proves to be more twisted.  It incorporates manipulation, betrayal and eventually madness, and neither Bounce nor Henry emerge from it particularly well.  Also, a last-minute comment from Oliver himself changes our perception, disturbingly, of how he’d viewed Bounce and her relationship with Henry.

 

As this entry should make clear, the class system is the monster in whose baleful gaze the incidents of The Pyramid take place.  (Incidentally, I assume this is why the novel is called The Pyramid, because it refers to the shape of the social hierarchy, with many at the bottom and few at the top).  It pervades the three stories as unwelcomingly but as powerfully as the fly-smothered pig’s head that proclaims itself the beast in Lord of the Flies.

 

I used to have a rather fanciful notion of what William Golding was like.  When he was still alive, white-bearded and venerable-looking, I imagined him as a cross between a grizzled old sea-dog and a wise old mystic, a figure partly Ferdinand Magellan and partly Obi-Wan Kenobi.  It was a surprise when, last year, I read an article by Robert McCrum in the Observer, in which McCrum described a less serene William Golding, a man tortured by feelings of class inferiority. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/mar/11/william-golding-crisis.)

 

Mentioning Golding’s daughter, Judy Carver, McCrum writes: “But he was never at ease, even with literary recognition. When I came to know him, many years later when I was an editorial director at Faber and Faber, he was by then garlanded with both the Booker and the Nobel prizes. But he always struck me as someone who was not just socially awkward, but mildly belligerent about his awkwardness, too. His daughter says that, with her father, the touchy subject of class is something ‘you cannot make too much of’. She adds that ‘the good burghers of Marlborough’ (where her father grew up) never failed to arouse the most bitter feelings of social inadequacy. For Golding the class gulf was ‘as real as a wound’, and contributed to terrible episodes of rage throughout his life.”  I don’t know how much truth there are in McCrum and Carver’s comments – but The Pyramid certainly provides evidence to support them.

 

The other monster stalking the pages of The Pyramid is the small-town nosiness that compels everyone to find out about everyone else’s business and to pass (usually disdainful) judgement on it.  Stilbourne comes across as being as tiny, as mercilessly exposed and as maddeningly claustrophobic as the little tooth of rock on which the title character finds himself stranded in Golding’s Pincher Martin.  Emblematic of this is Oliver’s mother, who “(l)ike all the women in our Square… was a habitual detective.  They, the women, were not satisfied with the railed-off enclosure before each house, nor with the spring-locked doors…  My frail little mother, then, might stand behind our muslin curtains for half an hour, watching to find what a new hat, a meeting, a gesture, an expression even, could reveal.”

 

With such monsters at large in the social milieu of Stilbourne, one might conclude that young Oliver is not that much better off than Ralph, Piggy, Jack and company, stuck on the most famous desert island in 20th-century English-language literature.

 

Lady of the flies: book review / Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard

 

(c) Flamingo Books

 

I opened J.G. Ballard’s 1994 novel Rushing to Paradise with a little trepidation because of two common assumptions about Ballard’s oeuvre: firstly, that he was better at writing short stories than at writing novels; and secondly, that his earlier novels – those up until 1984’s Empire of the Sun, including the loose trilogies of The Drowned World, The Drought and The Crystal World (1964-1966) and Crash, Concrete Island and High Rise (1973-1975) – are better than his later ones.

 

Generally, I agree with both assumptions.  While I think Ballard, who died in 2009, wrote some excellent novels, none of them had quite the same impact on me that his best short stories did – items like Concentration City, The Drowned Giant, Now Wakes the Sea and The Air Disaster are masterpieces of short fiction that aspiring young writers should be made to study in order to learn How It Is Done.  And though I always got some enjoyment out of his later novels, such as SuperCannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006), it was clear that they weren’t in the same league as his earlier novels.

 

The problem with his later books, I feel, is that there’s too much going on in them and as a consequence they lack focus.  For example, Kingdom Come, which looks at the disturbing influence that a huge new shopping mall has on the inhabitants of a satellite town outside London, begins with a shooting spree by a crazed gunman, then touches on several contemporary issues like racism, football hooliganism and rampant 21st-century consumerism, and ends with a bizarre final section where an assortment of misfits take over the mall and try to set up a new (and inevitably dystopian) society inside it, like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies or Alex Garland’s The Beach crossed with the George A. Romero movie Dawn of the Dead.  In other words, just as you’ve managed to take one trope on board, another one bustles along to confuse you further.

 

Sometimes I feel that this was due not so much to a decline in Ballard’s writing powers, as to the fact that the modern world – which all Ballard’s work portrayed through a uniquely distorted prism, part Franz Kafka and part Salvador Dali – was by the 21st century changing so fast.  Even his satirical radar couldn’t keep up with all the weird social, political and technological developments that contemporary life was generating.  Neither could he quite manage to accommodate everything adequately in each new book.

 

(Having said that, I should thank Kingdom Come for a memorable frisson it gave me last year, while I was reading it.  I’d arranged to meet a friend one afternoon in Carthage, the swankiest of Tunis’s suburbs.  My friend hadn’t yet turned up when I got off at the local TCM station, which was next door to the Carthage Branch of Monoprix, so I took Kingdom Come out of my bag and spent a few minutes waiting beside the big supermarket with my nose stuck in its pages.  It took me a minute or two to realise that the supermarket wasn’t just closed for the afternoon.  It was gutted.  During the Tunisian revolution in January, it’d been looted and trashed and stood now as a razed shell, a disturbingly incongruous spectacle in the middle of this smart neighbourhood of high white walls and thick iron gates, four-by-fours and swimming pools, orange trees and jasmine bushes.  This was all spookily similar to what was happening in the book I was holding – wow, the prophetic power of literature!  If Ballard’s ghost had been nearby, having a quiet chuckle, I wouldn’t have been surprised.)

 

A plot summary of Rushing to Paradise suggests a similar lack of focus.  It tells the story of a group of environmental activists, led by an intense and plainly unbalanced woman called Dr Barbara Rafferty, who head for Saint Esprit, a Pacific atoll, to protest against a French nuclear test and save the albatrosses that nest there.  By dumb luck rather than by any tactical ability, they manage to force the French to withdraw from the atoll and, with the place to themselves, Barbara hits on the idea of converting it into a global eco-sanctuary, one where endangered plants and animals can brought from other continents and allowed to grow or breed in safety.  “Think of Saint Esprit as the ultimate environmental project,” she tells the youngest member of the group, a naïve 16-year-old called Neil Dempsey who is the novel’s focal character and whose loyalty to Barbara strays further into psychosis as the story progresses.  “We’re engineering the ecology of paradise!”  Needless to say, things don’t go as planned and the utopian society that the environmentalists set up on Saint Esprit falls more than slightly short of its goals.  In fact, it all goes Lord of the Flies.  (That happened a lot in Ballard’s fiction.)

 

Later, however, Ballard shifts gears and what had been a dark satire of environmental idealism becomes an even darker satire of feminism.  Barbara starts to muse that, “Women don’t dislike men… We bring them into this world and spend the rest of our lives helping them to understand themselves.  If anything, we’ve been too kind to them, letting them play their dangerous games.”  Meanwhile, the male members of the party start dying of strange, debilitating sicknesses.  And whenever boatloads of environmental sympathisers arrive at the atoll, the women on board are persuaded to stay while the men go mysteriously missing.  It eventually dawns on Neil that Barbara is keeping him alive so that he can impregnate the women around him and the atoll can propagate what she has identified now as the most valuable species of all – the human female.  And if anything happens to compromise Neil’s fitness and virility, he’ll go the same way as the other men.

 

But the sudden switch from environmental satire to feminist satire here isn’t as jarring as the competing elements in Kingdom Come or Ballard’s other later books.  Perhaps it’s because we’re set up for this transition early on in Rushing to Paradise.  After meeting Barbara for the first time, a curious Neil does some research on her.  He discovers that in her youth she was a proper medical doctor but was disgraced in a scandal where she assisted some terminally ill patients with their (alleged) wish to die.  Thus, Ballard establishes her as a chameleon of trendy causes – voluntary euthanasia, environmentalism, feminism – who happily drops one and adopts another whenever it suits her damaged state of mind.

 

In fact, I found Rushing to Paradise a surprisingly enjoyable book, more enjoyable than the assumptions I mentioned at the start of this review had led me to believe.  Nonetheless, the strongest part of it is the bleakly-amusing central section, which details the environmentalists’ hopeless attempts to build a Gaia-friendly Shangri-La on the atoll after the French have abandoned it.  (After sinking the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour in 1985, and after deciding to run nuclear tests at Moruroa to pre-empt the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, those beastly French were definitely the environmental villains du jour when Ballard penned this novel.)  He has a merry time skewering his characters for the gulf between their rhetoric and (the consequences of) their actions.  For instance, the ship that carries them to the atoll causes an oil slick that destroys most of its birdlife.  And the endangered animals that environmental groups around the world send to them, believing they’ve turned the atoll into an ecological Noah’s Ark, end up in their cooking pots as survival there becomes more desperate.

 

Although his early novels like The Drowned World and The Drought dealt ostensibly with environmental disasters and were prescient of our modern fears about global warming, Ballard never seemed to have much truck with the environmental movement.  Indeed, one or two of the pieces in his 1996 collection of non-fiction, A User’s Guide to the Millennium, were published originally in motoring magazines and suggested he was even a bit of a petrol-head.  However, I wouldn’t go so far as the Spectator columnist Rod Liddle who, on the event of Ballard’s death, declared that the writer had been a Conservative (http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/3557201/jg-ballard-was-a-man-of-the-right-not-that-the-right-really-wanted-him/).  I know he did write once about “the mysterious beauty of Margaret Thatcher… the arch of her nostrils and the sheen on her lower lip…” but as this came from the pen of a man who’d written in Crash about people being sexually aroused by car accidents, Mrs Thatcher would be ill-advised to take it as a compliment.  Besides, in the 1990s, Ballard turned down the offer of a CBE, condemning the British honours system as “a Ruritanian charade that helps prop up our top-heavy monarchy.”  Hardly the words of a man of the right.

 

My feeling is that, rather than expressing Ballard’s disdain for the environmental movement or for the feminist movement, Rushing to Paradise is merely a character study.  It examines a megalomaniac who, as I’ve said, uses causes such as environmentalism and feminism as tools to herd her followers closer and closer to her messianic goals.  Indeed, Barbara is one of the most intriguing of Ballard’s characters, managing to be a tyrant and mass-murderer but managing to engage the reader’s pity too.  In one of Neil’s rare moments of insight, he glimpses the profound solitude that she really longs for, realising “for the first time that she would only be happy when was alone on Saint Esprit, when Kino, Monique and the Saitos had gone and even the albatross had abandoned her.”  And her demented spirit seems to shine ever more brightly as people die around her and as her own body withers with malnutrition, illness and overwork.

 

Correspondingly, if Rushing to Paradise has a fault, it lies in the characterisation of Neil.  Possessing little spirit himself, easily manipulated and more than a little stupid, he seems to exist only as a literary device — as a blank page for recording, and an empty mirror for reflecting, Barbara’s glorious insanity.  And unsurprisingly, at the book’s finale, when he is rescued from the atoll, his one impulse is directed towards the mad but magnetic older woman who has dominated him for so long.  Neil, writes Ballard, “would join her, happy to be embraced again by Dr Barbara’s cruel and generous heart.”

 

Indeed, his passivity becomes downright annoying.  Reading the book, there were times when I wished that I could step into its pages, onto the sands of Saint Esprit, and throttle him — or that Dr Barbara Rafferty would bump him off too and finish the job of rendering Saint Esprit’s male population extinct.