Bioy Casares had dined with me that night and gotten us lengthily engaged in a vast polemic on the writing of a first–person novel whose narrator omitted or distorted the facts and ran up against various contradictions, all of which allowed a few readers – very few readers – to divine its banal or atrocious reality.
Borges, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbius Tertius
We have always been fascinated by guilt. The reasons suggested for this fascination might as well be as diverse as the reasons for our existence. Our conscience, not our DNA, is the dividing line between us and the rest of the animal kingdom, and finding out how that conscience works, why it focuses on certain things in lieu of others, and why our dreams consistently appear to be surrealistic metaphors for our conscience have always been integral sources of art, and, more recently, of science as well. Do I doubt science’s ability to get to the meaty core of these issues? Not at all; but I also know that the binary codes of this programming help us to be perfectly individual and yet share in basic moral dilemmas with our fellow humans. One of the dilemmas that most fitfully shake us to our roots is coping with a criminal act, be it as the victim or the perpetrator. The more egregious the crime, the more scalding the oil that fuels our fears. And the psychological novel – for want of a better term to save it from the steambath mindlessness of its cousin, the historical novel – has been more acutely aware of the human psyche over the past century owing to our advances in neurology. Demonic possession, a topic I touched upon earlier, is as much a remnant of the past as miasma or a chunk of Vesuvian rock. Its replacement, and the subject matter of many an inferior novel, is madness. Inferior because the presence of a mad or unreliable narrator means we may be fed a pack of lies, retconned at the last moment to knock over everything before it like a strip of obedient dominoes. In these type of stories, the plot functions purely as a thin curtain that hides a crime, so that the text itself can be understood to answer the question: how does one describe the anatomy of a crime without detailing the crime itself? You may rightly ask why the hidden portion needs to be a crime; I would then ask in return whether you know of any book or work of art that employs criminal circumstances to mask something good. Good needs no mask, nor does it plague our conscience. Our nightmares are fed a steady diet of temptations, misdeeds and betrayals.
Such is the predicament of Spider (Dennis Cleg on legal documents), the narrator of this near–flawless novel of degeneration by McGrath. Spider is tall, thin, and empty, and his scroungy garb looks “untenanted ... as though [he] were nothing and the clothes were clinging merely to the idea of a man.” He lives in what appears to be a boarding house with a bunch of “dead souls,” other semi–animated creatures waiting for the last drops of life to leave their wretched frames. Most of them couldn’t care less about their environment nor the friendless people in it, which sets Spider apart since he is both very aware and bent on recording his impressions in a trusted notebook. Soon after attempting a few boring sketches of the milieu as if he were doing a gonzo piece from inside a halfway house, Spider gets derailed by recollections of his family’s tragedy. His mother is dead and he refers to his father, although not lovingly, in the past tense. We also know from the onset that the tragedy has something to do with a woman named Wilkinson, because that also happens to be the surname of his present landlady and surrogate caretaker. Soon, Spider is awash in the crashing waves of memory and we get fewer and fewer cutaways to his present. He enters his adolescent past fully and hypothesizes about the circumstances of the tragedy, which I cannot permit myself to disclose here. Yet I will say that approximately a third of the way through this slender novel an awful event occurs that, while inevitable, shocks all parties involved and speeds the book down a dark and evil road.
Now, in these types of situations there can only be three logical explanations: that the narrator is telling the truth; that the whole tale is fabricated from beginning to end to conceal the narrator’s own agenda; or that the imagery and details are essentially correct but the conclusions are wrong, which is precisely the failing of a bad reader. I have never advocated one school of textual criticism over another because they all seem to thwart each other’s crusade for hermeneutic dominance, but it is important to understand how much a good reader changes the aspect of a good book. If the reader is enlightened, he will see the ulterior motive for the inclusion of certain tidbits and angles and proceed with the greatest of caution in reaching an overarching theory on what these unfamiliar perspectives might really denote. On the other hand, if the reader is determined to solve every book he reads on his first go, he will handle the text like a crossword puzzle and fill in nonsensical words where needed to ensure completion, obtaining in the end nothing more than garbled gibberish. Fully conscious of how such a premise can go sour, McGrath wisely takes a simple action, or dysfunction, or crime (herein lies our uncertainty), and imagines every little detail to it, every how to, why then, and what after. The event becomes historic, a watershed in the life of an obscure man, and around it a whole epic unfolds. This is a stratagem that, in the hands of the less talented or of those who wish to sublimate the subject matter for all of humanity (one could easily have envisioned a less artistic writer ingeminating the social conditions with some silly statement about how things have not changed much nowadays, except that the poor are no longer born in England), would fail and fail badly. Steered by someone with a sprawling imagination who loves detail for its surface and allegorical meaning rather than for its solipsist subjectivism, however, and you enter a rather chilling world where you actually do step somewhere different. One author, an obvious precursor to this type of stuff (even the hatted cyclist on the cover of Spider resembles that of Molloy), was more antagonistic than McGrath is here, with Malone, Molloy, and others constantly snapping at some unseen enemies offstage (Dennis does have some imps bother him on occasion, but they hold a minor role). Spider has one enemy, and it’s not really himself, or the human race, or God. It’s what he sees as a dysfunctional family and negligence to which he does not ascribe his condition, but simply rages against its fallout.
Like the best of Beckett, Spider is to be savored not considered. The beauty lies in the descriptions of workmanship precision. The street on which the Clegs reside, a den of primitive lusts and everyday vulgarity, is called Kitchener Street, and the favorite pub of Horace (Dennis’s father) is nothing less than the Dog and Beggar. Spider seems on occasion to be talking in code and an interesting set of statements is qualified with two telling words, “you see” (such as: “I’m something of a gardener myself, you see”; “Hilda was a prostitute, you see”). As his narrative progresses Spider becomes a symbol, figuratively and literally, and we start to detect increasing significance in the smallest asides or objects. Take, for example, the passage that appears “dead in the middle” of the novel:
Then I cut into my potato, and dead in the middle of the halved potato there was a dark stain. I stared at it with some unease. Then a syrupy fluid began to ooze out of the potato, the thick, slow discharge of what after a moment or two I recognized as blood. I looked up, startled, to see my father and Hilda, their knives and forks poised aloft over their plates, openly grinning at me. The light bulb suddenly crackled overhead and for a moment I thought it was laughter. Again my eyes fell on the oozing potato, and now the blood appeared to be congealing in a viscous puddle under my kipper.
A potato, or perhaps a mandrake. There are a lot of dead animals in this story: a rat or two, that kipper, a turkey, a one–eyed ferret; all not surprising given the fact that spiders are some of nature’s most ruthless trappers and killers. Conniving and deadly, is this our Spider? Wasn’t he just named that because of his daddy longlegs appearance?
Yet in the end, Spider is much more than another tale about squalid circumstances that drive a man to the brink of reason, then lustfully push him off. If there is a weakness, it is the constant coincidence between Dennis’s childhood and his present adulthood, although the vacillation correctly corresponds to the obsessive thoughts of someone with too much time on his hands and too many memories to accept the ineluctable modality of the visible. And if you know what type of animal a cleg is, you might see no coincidences at all but only a banal or atrocious reality.