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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Man Booker Prize 2009, I: Foulds’ Quickening Maze

Posted by Adam Roberts on 09/22/09 at 04:41 PM

[Scott’s kindly post prompts me to realise a plan that had been half-heartedly floating around my brain, viz.: blogging reviews of this year’s actual Booker Prize shortlist as I make my way through them.  To that end, some thoughts on Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze. Like Rohan said, it’s been a little too quiet around here lately].

Dr Matthew Allen runs a lunatic asylum on the outskirts of Epping Forest in 1840: John Clare, the mad peasant poet, is one of his patients. Alfred Tennyson comes to stay, to oversee the admittance of his brother Septimus, who is suffering from the melancholic ‘black blood’ of the Tennysons. The doctor has a brilliant idea for an automated wood-lathe, and persuades Tennyson to invest (something which really happened). The doctor’s pale daughter Hannah falls hopelessly in love with Tennyson (which may or may not have happened). The wood-lathe project goes bust. Various loonies hove into and out of view through the scintillant fog of Fould’s self-consciously fine writing: Margaret with her self-abnegating religious mania; witchlike Clara; Mr. Francombe, who believes that if he shits ‘he will poison the water, destroy the forest … and everyone in London will be killed’ [34] and who is given an enema against his will, something Foulds describes in loving, revolting detail.* And above all there is Clare, who early in the novel wanders the forest and hangs-out with gypsies, but who becomes increasingly deranged as the book goes on.  His perceptions of the natural world, and the whorls and eddies of his distorted consciousness gift the novel its most memorable moments. The final section describes with hallucinatory vividness his eighty-mile walk from London to Northborough, and is a superb piece of prose ... although it draws heavily, as of course is must, on Clare’s own, famous account of that walk.

I remember reading a review (or now that I come to think of it, I think this was a discussion I heard on radio or saw on TV) of Golding’s Darkness Visible when that novel was first published in 1979. The talking head, or reviewer, thought the book broadly a failure, but said ‘it has patches—patches—of some of the finest writing I have ever read.’ And before I ever read the novel itself I remember thinking: what a fantastic thing. Not a tediously accomplished novel that runs smoothly from start to finish, but a ragged text out of which protrude great chunks of genius. That seems to me, for reasons I still can’t quite fathom, as an almost ideal notion: a superb notion for how a novel could be. When I finally got round to reading Darkness Visible it was something of a disappointment, actually; because it is both not as a bad, and nowhere near as good, as that I’ve-forgotten-her-name reviewer implied. You know the story about how, before he ever heard the track, Paul McCartney read a review of the Who’s ‘I Can See For Miles’ that called it ‘the heaviest song yet recorded’? And how when he did hear the song he was disappointed that it wasn’t what the review had implied, so he was moved to write and record ‘Helter Skelter’? Step down the analogy to the realm of SF and that’s my career: a series of attempts to rewrite what I thought Darkness Visible was going to be like before I actually read it. Attempts to recreate a novel of compelling gnarliness from a template that never actually existed.

Now I mention all this because, in a distant and rather watery sort of way this is what Foulds’ The Quickening Maze is like. It does not entirely succeed overall, but there are moments of beautiful, beautiful writing in it, many of which embody to Clare’s perception of the world, and some of which approach genuine gnarly protruding genius.

They don’t stop it being a fairly thin novel. It is rather similar, in this respect, to Foulds’ last publication, his long poem The Broken Word, which I reviewed here: viz., an often very very good short story stretched a little to fill out the space between two hard covers—except that instead of simply giving us, as The Broken Word does, the boiled-down, polished-up gem-like moments of writing and nothing else, The Quickening Maze stuffs workmanlike prose and so-so dialogue into the spaces between the gems. It still, at 259 pages, feels more like a short story than a novel (the font is large; the allotment of margin is generous). I should add that feels like a very memorable short story. And I should add also that I may not be the ideal reader. I am, after all, a Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of London, author of various academic writings on Tennyson (and editor of this): so I could see exactly where Fould’s imaginative recreations stopped and where the collage of chunks plucked wholesale from Robert Bernard Martin’s Tennyson: the Unquiet Heart began. None of this is actively bad, although Foulds doesn’t do the whole early-19th-century poets-interacting-with-real-people schtick as compellingly as Ben Markovits does in his superlative Byron novels.

To be nitpickier (‘to nittier-pick’?): the very high caliber of Foulds prose only makes moments where the writing lapses stand out the more. So, describing the straps restraining poor Mr Francombe for his enema, Foulds lapses into a dangling modifier (‘They creaked as he pulled, exhaling slowly through his widely spaced teeth’ 38). Or there’s this sentence—‘A full moon, he noticed, looking away’ [201]—in which I don’t know if it’s Clare or the Moon who looks away.

On the other hand we get a larger number of wonderful moments too. Here’s Clare watching gypsies chopping up a poached deer, which they have hung from a tree: ‘the deer looked odd now with its whole furred head and antlers hanging down, its skeleton neck and body, and its breeches of flesh still on’ [49]; and the moment soon afterwards when Clare goes to sleep imagining ‘his head whole, his whole body stripped to a damp skeleton, placed gently, curled round, in a hole in the earth.’ Or this description of being punched in the face:

Stockdale drew back his right hand and threw his fist into John’s face. He saw the attendant’s knuckles suddenly huge, big as the palings of a fence with creases of shadow between them as his eye was struck, a vivid visual arrest he was still pondering when the second shadowy blow swum like a pike towards him and knocked him out cold’ [203]


He watched Tennyson relight his pipe, hollowing his clean-shaven cheeks as he plucked the flame upside down into the bowl of scorched tobacco’ [23]

Lovely writing. These moments aren’t additive though: they are lyric clots of beauty, and do not entirely coalesce into a whole novel.
*I should add: I heartily endorse his project of getting more shit into contemporary fiction.


it’s been a little too quiet around here lately

Be careful what you wish for. I’m just saying.

I don’t think you’ve inspired me to read The Quickening Maze (and I guess I’d be of the view that the fewer fictional feces [or is it the less?], the better), but I’m tempted, now, by Ben Markovitz’s Byron novels.

By Rohan Maitzen on 09/22/09 at 08:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Markovits: yes. Both his Byron novels are worth reading, though Quiet Adjustment is particularly good.

Hmm.  We may end up dividing the Valve into pro-poop and anti-poop camps, like Liliput and Blefescu.

By Adam Roberts on 09/23/09 at 05:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

*I should add: I heartily endorse his project of getting more shit into contemporary fiction.

“The Kindly Ones” didn’t have enough for you?

By Andrew Seal on 09/23/09 at 03:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Andrew: I was thinking of this deeply shitty novel, which came out before The Kindly Ones I think. You’re right, though: Littell’s book is enough to satiate even the hard-core copraic.

By Adam Roberts on 09/24/09 at 04:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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