Monster Love by Carol Topolski

Sherilyn and Brendan are an immaculate, newly married couple living in a well-to-do street. Always perfectly turned out, their house and garden styled in exquisite, if monochrome, taste, they are a couple on the rise. Always polite, their social responses appropriate if distant, they are aloof but accepted, admired even. Until…

Until Sherilyn, despite Brendan’s vasectomy, falls pregnant.

I’m tempted to say very little else about the novel because in a sense discussing what happens ruins a reader’s pleasure, but I am going to say more, so if you are hooked already don’t carry on reading this until you’ve finished the book.

The baby, born of this perfectly turned-out couple who planned never to have children, is viewed by Sherilyn and Brendan as an intruder. Samantha (the child) has entered their lives deliberately intending to destroy Sherilyn and Brendan’s happiness. Even though they plot to climb social ladders and earn good money, they really want nothing but each other. The answer is simply to shut the child out of their lives by turning her bedroom into a homemade cage (she is two when they first lock her away), until even the most menial care – putting a commode and a TV in the box with her with a sink just outside, delivering food, cleaning her up, visiting a meagre three times a day, hitting or burning her with cigarettes when she doesn’t comply with their wishes – gets too much for them and they realise the outside world will soon intervene with questions over her schooling, not to mention the pesky visit from a social worker, and decide to simply go away leaving Samantha behind. The girl, now four years’ old, is found dead some weeks later after an attempted burglary.

This is where the story takes an interesting turn. You expect a novel of this kind to unpick Sherilyn and Brendan seeking answers to their behaviour. In some ways the novel does do this. They find solace in each other, a home no one else has ever been able to provide. Sherilyn was overshadowed by her perfect baby sister and abused by her father. Brendan’s mother died when he was very little and he was then passed between step-mothers and hit by all parent figures, growing into a tall, muscular man who wet his bed and made strange collections of feathers, insect wings and scarab beetles. But there is more to them and their relationship than this. Instead of delving further into their past, we look more closely into their present, into their connection which – certainly for them at least – transcends physical boundaries and makes prison a meaningless punishment: they remain in control because they remain separate in their togetherness; their love transcends. This isn’t what you expect from a novel like this. You aren’t made to feel pity, or even to question your place in a human race that contains their disregard for a child, not even a morbid fascination. Instead, you are presented with something entirely singular and this stops the book from being a cliché and forces you to rethink easy presumptions about the perpetrators of such a terrible crime.

This side-stepping of the expected exploration of the sick mind is enhanced by the way in which the story is told through the multiple voices of the couple’s neighbours, police officers, social worker, co-workers, prison staff, judge, jury member, and family. These voices are far more troubled by Samantha’s death than her parents and the interlacing of these different interpretations of the story weave an intriguing picture of the wider impact of Brendan and Sherilyn’s actions. The multiplicity suggests the unending social ripple of story made painfully visible by the terrible, normally construed unnatural, nature of this particular story.

I’m not sure, in the end, if I wanted the novel to go in this direction. I wanted more of a picture of what Brendan and Sherilyn actually did to Samantha, more of how, why and what they felt as they behaved and acted as they did. The title, Monster Love, suggests an author eager to explore their love, their acts, as a portent (monster comes from monere, to warn), a warning to others and yet, in order to warn you need to understand that a monster is not something different but instead something possible, something whose potential exists in all of us. I think the collective portrait is one way in which Carol Topolski attempts to show this, and I admire this novel immensely, but I wanted a more intensely personal exploration even if you may well not. Certainly, this is a gripping and provocative novel that makes me want to read more of Carol Topolski’s work. I thoroughly recommend it.

Next week I’m reading The Last Novel by David Markson.

Across by Peter Handke

I’m not always entirely sure of when events take place or of how much time is passing in Handke’s novel, Across, but this hiatus of uncertainty is central to Handke’s theme and the novel’s main character, Andreas Loser: he needs to be helped to have time because he stands at the threshold, a threshold in which daddy longlegs are his only company, their live, dying and dead legs ticking out time like living clocks or ‘patron[s] of the threshold seekers’ (p21).

Andreas Loser is paused between many things: he has not left his family and yet he does not live with them; he has not quit his job but he has a leave of absence; he is a teacher but also a lay authority on the archaeology of the threshold; he lives in Salzburg but on the outskirts within sight of the German border; he lives close to a canal where the bridge preoccupies him. When he suddenly acts without seeming forethought and steps beyond the realm of commonly accepted morality, he stands at the threshold of lawlessness, homelessness and wilderness. The beauty of the mountainous landscape around him, infiltrated and pock-marked by habitation, thrust into relief by the human density of the Old City centre, makes the story more painful, more melancholic, more romantic in the oldest and most poetic of senses that stretches the naval gazing over the human condition back to the Greeks.

Loser, who has chosen to interpret the etymology of his name as a derivative of the dialect verb losen meaning ‘listen’ or ‘hark’, rather than someone who gets rid of things, is exceedingly good at heeding the world around him in a detail that is almost painful in its comprehensive inclusivity. He feels he lacks a sense of combined imaginative perception the Ancient Greeks call leukein, but the prose is full of the expression of illuminated experience. There is one passage in which he describes how a group of card players, brought together through a loose-knit connection of friendship, become bound through the aftermath of a period of storytelling:

‘One after another fell silent. But this was not the usual lull in the conversation before a group breaks up. The storytelling seemed, rather, to continue in the silence, and thus to become more eloquent than ever. Each of us delved deeper into himself and there met his neighbour, with whom he now, without trying, had everything in common. “Once upon a time there was we.” (How is it that I can say “we”? After all, we were not very many. And I trusted this “we.” Once upon a time there was a fact.)’ (p70)

This binding follows on from his criminal act making their closeness all the more eerie, all the more beautiful for its love and distrust of fellow feeling. The human ability to come together – and indeed this feeling of contented connectedness is something I think we all recognise and seek – isn’t necessarily entirely positive: it can blur moral sensibility. We need storytellers to hold us together, but we need them to be prepared for the consequences and sacrifices of standing between: “The storyteller is the threshold. [Loser quotes this himself.] He must therefore stop and collect himself” (p130).

I’m not saying I always like the main character, his motives or his actions, but Handke’s story is spellbinding, compelling, quiet in its outrage.

Next week I’m reading Carol Topolski’s Monster Love followed by The Last Novel David Markson.

The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

The Hour of the Star is a novel you finish and then instantly want to pick up again. Because of this I will undoubtedly wish I had written something else about it by this time next week. Though short, I wanted to fold the corner of almost every page.

The novel follows the life of Macabea, a girl from North-east Brazil like thousands of others ‘to be found in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, living in bedsitters or toiling behind counters for all they are worth. They aren’t even aware of the fact that they are superfluous and that nobody cares a damn about their existence’ (p14). A badly paid and barely literate typist whose family are dead, Macabea exists with little luxury of thought or experience. We follow her as she struggles with work, almost gets a boyfriend and seeks professional advice about her health and her destiny.

Though ostensibly a male authorial narrator, Lispector’s voice remains present in the telling of Macabea’s story. The narrator says that someone else could write about Macabea ‘but it would have to be a man for a woman would weep her heart out’ (14). He continues to write about himself:

‘Prayer was a means of confronting myself in silence away from the gaze of others. As I prayed I emptied my soul – and this emptiness is everything that I can ever hope to possess. Apart from this, there is nothing. But emptiness, too, has its value and somehow resembles abundance. One way of obtaining is not to search, one way of possessing is not to ask; simply to believe that my inner silence is the solution to my – to my mystery.’ (p14)

This emptiness – echoed in a desire for simplicity in the writing – is something that the narrator shares with Macabea: ‘Most of the time, she possessed, without knowing it, the emptiness that replenishes the souls of saints. Was she a saint? It would seem so. The girl didn’t know that she was meditating, for the word meditation was unknown to her. I get the impression that her life was one long meditation about nothingness.’ (p37)

And so, though much has been written about Clarice Lispector being heir to Kafka, it is Flaubert I think of when reading The Hour of the Star. Of course Macabea is anything but a bourgeois Madame Bovary yet her story invokes similar themes in which human beings are forced to face the gratuity of life, are forced to squeeze meaning from the little afforded them.

Macabea confronts life with bravery and faith. In what does she place this faith? ‘It isn’t necessary to have faith in anyone or anything – it is enough to have faith. This often endowed her with a state of grace. For she had never lost faith.’ (p25)

These ideas of faith and saintliness point me even further in the direction of Flaubert, into an aesthetic that juxtaposes harsh experience against religion, myth and the power of story.

‘Remember that, no matter what I write, my basic material is the word. So this story will consist of words that form phrases from which there emanates a secret meaning that exceeds both words and phrases. Like every writer, I am clearly tempted to use succulent terms: I have at my command magnificent adjectives, robust nouns, and verbs so agile that they glide through the atmosphere as they move into action. For surely words are actions? Yes I have no intention of adorning the word, for were I to touch the girl’s bread, that bread would turn to gold – and the girl (she is nineteen years old) the girl would be unable to bite into it, and consequently die of hunger.” (p14-15)

The awareness of the creative act of using and shaping words, the desire to empty the self, the need to put faith in something, align Macabea and Lispector and highlight the writer as someone who is as one with the many millions ‘that nobody cares a damn about’. This is the kind of writing that inspires and humbles me. This is how literature best expresses philosophy and philosophy is best expressed.

The Hour of the Star is a beautiful gem whose many facets can be turned and turned again in an endless play of meaning. Even if you aren’t one for literary novels, you won’t regret reading The Hour of the Star.

Next week I’m reading Across by Peter Handke followed by Carol Topolski’s Monster Love.