This review is the first in what I hope will be a new series, A Book A Week, which is what is sounds like: a review of a book, each and every week for a year. That’s 52 reviews of 52 books. The only caveat is that the book has to have been published in 2016–or, indeed 2017, if I ever get that far. In no small part, this is to get me reading more modern fiction, and to get me writing (or trying to write) about literature again. It’s something I’ve not done seriously for quite a while, and it’s something I’ve missed, rather. Anyway, here’s Beast.
Beast, by Paul Kingsnorth
Modernity is what exercises Paul Kingsnorth. But modernity, for him, is not something to be embraced uncritically. In his first novel, The Wake, modernity comes not only speaking French, conquering and building castles, but also, much more subtly, as the new and foreign “crist” slowly ousts the old gods, those whose being is tied to the stones and water of England. In his latest novel, however, modernity is not something that comes wearing chain-mail or chasubles —rather, it’s a manner of being in the world.
Enter Edward Buckmaster, a pilgrim of sorts, and a hermit. He has travelled travelled “from the east […] from the dead fens, because of everything that grew there, from what was lodged in the dark waters.” He travelled barefoot to the high moors because he had become “entwined in wanting, and it took [him] away from the stillness that is everything.” Buckmaster wandered to the moors, stumbling across a derelict farmhouse which he took to be his hermitage.
“I came here,” Buckmaster tells us, “to measure myself against the great emptiness. I came here to touch the void and leap naked into it with the shards of what I was falling around me, to have the void clean me of the smallness that I swam in. To come out of that white and empty with a small, sharp piece of that emptiness in me always, because that is all that can ever save me.” A kind of metaphysical Escape to the Country, perhaps.
But Buckmaster is engaged in something deeper than that. He’s following a very old path indeed, the via negativa, a mode of thought that finds truth through ceaseless negation, a kind of Zen. The things of the world are but distractions from a form of knowledge that exists beyond anything that can be grasped, whether physically, or linguistically. The modern world is noisy; it whirls incessantly, and Buckmaster seeks a way out of this noise, into a world where “everything [is] white and split apart and nothing [is] known.” The impulse is to be “in the places where the light comes through, where people are thin on the ground, where the old spirits still mutter in the hedges and the stone rows.”
As Buckmaster steps farther away from the things of the world he steps further away from sanity, and further away from the strictures of language and human thought, and towards what one might uncharitably call madness. Buckmaster becomes obsessed with a beast, lithe and mysterious and black, and seeks it obsessively, combing the moors and the forests. As he seeks the beast, though, he becomes more and more bestial. His carefully-planned strategy for combing the moors disintegrates into a wild hunt; his body disintegrates, becoming impelled by pain, fear and hunger; his language disintegrates. He becomes the beast that he seeks, a ragged expression of the land around him.
It’s Kingsnorth’s language, though, that makes Beast sing. Sparse, taut, and rhythmic, Kingsnorth’s prose is alive with a visceral intensity. The incessant, driving rhythm of Beast’s sentences is something that can be felt intensely, in the pit of one’s stomach. It’s tempting to liken Kingsnorth’s spiralling, vertiginous sentences to those of Eimar McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, but hold that thought, because what Kingsnorth does here is entirely his own. Something unabashedly ancient, yet ironically utterly modern.