This perversely lyrical novel has us rooting for a would-be murderer to just get on with it and kill the guy. The reluctant and very clumsy “hero,” Alistair Berg, has come to a British seaside town to kill his father, Nathaniel, whom he has never met in his 28 years. It is not made clear if murder is his idea or his mother’s. Mother Edith has learned of her runaway husband’s whereabouts from a newspaper picture that shows him embracing a much younger woman.
That woman, Judith, is renting a boardinghouse room with him. Alistair Berg, cleverly calling himself “Greb,” takes the room next door and begins listening at the wall partition and following the two about. But instead of doing the deed, he falls into conversations with the old drunk and finds himself at once attracted to and repulsed by Judith.
Childhood memories of moments with Edith pop up more and more frequently. Although they seem innocent, there’s a sticky obsessiveness to them that screams Oedipal Drama. Berg-Greb is not a healthy man. He knows it, too. His own consciousness feels to him like life imprisonment. And although he keeps muffing the primal act, he does manage to kill the old man’s cat.
Throughout the rising tension of “Berg,” we readers are trapped in Aly’s increasingly hysterical stream of consciousness. We are stuck in the mind of a man going crazy in a world whose physicality threatens him with sensory overdose. Everything around him looks and feels menacing. “Café lights … inside red bulbs were hearts cut out against a perspiring ceiling — a whale’s stomach about to expand.”
What makes this bearable is that author Ann Quin manages to turn insanity into comedy. There is a very long, demented fight between Berg and his father that turns out be a surreal battle with a mannequin wearing Nathaniel’s suit. The fight begins in the old man’s room and continues on a beach and into a railroad station. Berg desperately tries to ditch the body while a horde of old men look on; Judith appears, both horrified and also egging him on. For a long while the reader is confused again. Is it Nathaniel, or the dummy, or both? Is Berg hallucinating? I’m not sure I could answer even if I wanted to. The scene is concrete in its details yet maddeningly elusive about the larger event.
What else, besides the demented humor, persuades readers to consent to live in a devolving mind is the manic lyricism, images and metaphors spinning wildly and beautifully out of control. Living in Berg’s psyche left this reader feeling a little crazy, too. Madcap humor and dark psychology combine in this brilliant riot of a novel, first published in 1964, by a witty British writer who died too young.
Minneapolis writer Brigitte Frase is a winner of the Nona Balakian citation for excellence in reviewing, given by the National Book Critics Circle.
By: Ann Quin.
Publisher: And Other Stories, 153 pages, $14.95.