The Acid Tongue
The Book That Forgot How To Tell A Story
Selected By Cyril Wong
There is some pleasure in putting down a book that has been endorsed by a literary bigwig, such as Booker Prize winner, John Banville; particularly when the winner himself is especially overrated. James Lasdun's review of Inside by Kenneth J Harvey points out this endorsement at the start, then he goes on to demonstrate, via his dismissive review, the insignificance of this endorsement:
In outline, Kenneth J Harvey's Inside, which comes ringingly endorsed by John Banville, has the makings of a gripping story, though its premise may lack the wildness of its acclaimed predecessor, The Town That Forgot How to Breathe (JM Coetzee did the honours on that one). The early pages set up a few powerful mysteries: what kind of man was its hero, Myrdon, before he went to prison; what did he do to alienate most of his family; what happened during his 14 years inside; how will he cope with being free and rich; who killed the girlfriend he was imprisoned for murdering?
But having raised these questions, Harvey proceeds to ignore most of them, or give them at best a distracted, cursory attention…The 14 years inside are alluded to as a time of momentous trauma, but they lack the imaginative specificity that would allow a reader to experience Myrdon's subsequent state of mind as anything other than a brooding rancour. The family relationships are suspended in a similarly vague state of antagonism.
Such a review only suggests this book will be in the bargain bins of bookstores everywhere in a matter of weeks. Lasdun reluctantly points out some good things about the book, which serve to give the impression of fairness and balance to his criticism:
The result is a novel that seems to strain against its own lines of force. Instead of delivering what it sets us up to want, it drops Myrdon into a series of episodes that, though often vivid in themselves, appear arbitrary or at least beside the point…An old pal beats up the thugs in a bar and gets arrested for it. The scene itself isn't bad, but it distracts from Myrdon's drama without particularly illuminating him. The story does eventually find its focus, settling on a reignited romance between Myrdon and Ruth, a former lover. The second-chance love story, from Persuasion to Under the Volcano, is a powerful device for examining the same characters in different phases of their lives but, again, it feels thinly conceived.
The reviewer even admits to a subjective viewpoint, which only lends a more definite edge to his skewering:
I should admit to a prejudice that set in early against this novel, on the basis of its aggressively stylised prose. From first page to last, this consists of one-phrase sentences hammered out relentlessly like a strange hybrid parody of interior monologue and hard-boiled noir…Some readers may find this a persuasive rendering of a consciousness subjected to the monotony of 14 years "inside", but to my mind that doesn't make it any better…
There is nothing left to save of this novel by the end of Lasdun's review:
QLRS Vol. 5 No. 4 Jul 2006
But I think the book's underlying problem is its refusal to clarify the original crime…On the one hand, Myrdon is the thief on the cross; the sinner given a chance at redemption. On the other he is Christ himself; persecuted, overflowing with love of humanity, crucified. Harvey clearly wants it both ways… Perhaps these opposed myths might have been reconciled, but as it is they seem to constrict the book, boxing in its main character and leaving him, for all the extremity of what he has gone through, a curiously muffled figure.
Should Harvey be locked up for this effort? Discuss this in the Forum!
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