When the Orange Prize longlist was first released I picked out several books that I knew I wanted to read from it, whether they appeared on the shortlist or not. Fault Lines by Nancy Huston was one of those books. The synopsis sounded deliciously controversial and the book had already won a round of French literary prizes, including the Prix Femina (it was originally written in French, and then translated into English by the author herself - does that mean it counts as a translated novel for my end-of-year stats?) I was disappointed that my local library didn't have it, but a cheeky email to the publisher, Atlantic Books, was successful and a review copy arrived post haste. It shot up to the top of my reading pile when the Orange shortlist was announced earlier this month.
The book is structured around four dynamic first-person narratives, told by success generations of the same family in reverse chronological order. Thus it opens in 2004 with the voice of Sol, a precocious, ego-centric six year old with startling delusions of grandeur. As he puts it: 'I'm the Sun King, Only Sun and Only Son, Son of Google, Son of God, Eternal Omnipotent Son of the World Wide Web.' The end-result of all the excesses of contemporary parenting that we can imagine - no discipline, no limits, no rules - and served hand and foot by his liberal-minded mother Tessa, he has become a chilling little monster completely lacking in emotional authenticity. As the book opens his favourite thing is to search for images of rape, torture and death via Google on the personal computer in his bedroom:
The corpses of Iraqi soldiers lying in the sand is one of my favourite things to click on. It's a whole slide show. Sometimes you can't even tell what body parts you're looking at. Torsos maybe? Or legs? They're sort of wrapped in rips and strips of clothing and they're lying in the sand, partially covered by the sand which has absorbed their blood, it's all very dry.
He understands that these images are taboo - at one point he watches a video of the execution of Nick Berg and, although he is dying to question his parents about it further, says nothing - but he has no idea how to feel about them. His gaze is glassy, clinical and completely lacking in empathy. A child brought up on the the gung-ho macho rhetoric of the Bush years, in the bubble created for him by his mother's domestic slavery, he has no conception of other people as people. They're moving shells, just things to look at. When he sees a dead bird by the roadside, and his mother, expecting fear and grief, bends down to comfort him, he acts his part and cries and hides his head, but really he is incapable of caring. He loves nothing and nobody but himself. He observes his family with indifference: his father, Randall, a passive and overworked computer programmer, his disabled Jewish grandmother, Sadie, and his eccentric great-grandmother, G.G (also known as 'Erra'). He feels a species of fastidious disdain for them all. His mother has earned a little more kudos but only because 'it's like with Mary and Jesus.' She picks up some of her son's reflected glory.
The most shocking manifestation of Sol's self-love is masturbation. Not because he is six years old, but because he is actively aroused by the photographs and videos of death and rape that he finds online. He uses them as sexual stimuli. Just hearing about torture prompts him to take action:
The minister launches into a sermon about the situation in Iraq, which reminds me of the stumps and lumps of dead Iraqi soldiers in the sand which reminds me of the women being raped and this hardens my penis so I use the hymn book to hide what I'm doing, rubbing myself gently all the way through the sermon... I'm the foaming horse, or the shooting machine gun or the exploding bomb. I rub myself raw with the sense of power rising...
It is clear that the urge to control, and the urge to power, form the bedrock of this obsession (and it is an obsession). It is not that Sol is turned on by corpses or women being raped; it is not the passive act of looking that gets him going. It is the act of searching for and finding them, of bringing them into being on the computer screen, that pleases him. It is the way the world is at his fingertips; it is the way Google and the internet allow him to govern and watch over the lives and deaths of his 'victims'. He is less a sick voyeur and more an omnipotent deity in the making. On a more basic level Sol's penchant for control is expressed through his fixation on purity and excrement. Refusing to eat proper meals, he only likes food that dissolves to a gooey paste in his mouth and believes that this fussy asceticism is essential in the production of perfect, soft torpedoes of poop. In other words, he shows all the classic symptoms of the anal stage of child development, taking pleasure from his ability to control his internal world - his very own dictatorship.
Huston clearly knows her Freud. The question that her novel asks again and again is how did Sol become the child he is? Was he born that way? Or was he skewed by the behaviour of his parents? In which case, does the blame actually lie with something his grandparents did to his parents? Or even further back? Did wider events have an impact? The answer, or at least an attempt at one, forms the basis of the plot as the story moves back in time.
The next section, set in 1982, deals with Randall, Sol's father. It is difficult to imagine a more different child - he is submissive, sensitive, curious and feeling the lack of his parent's confidence:
It's not that your parents don't love you the way you are, it's just that when you're a little kid you've got an awful lot to learn, and maybe (maybe) the more you learn the more they'll love you and maybe when you come home with a college diploma you won't have to worry about it anymore.
His mother, Sadie, is guilty of a sort of over-bearing neglect. Having converted to Orthodox Judiasm at her marriage and moved her family to Israel at the beginning of the war with Lebanon, she is increasingly obsessed with WWII atrocities and her German mother's role in them. She has almost no time for her son. We meet her again in 1962, when she herself is a desperate, self-hating little girl living with her strict grandparents while her mother tours the US as a singer. Her one desire, her only wish, is to succeed at being loveable in the face of her mother's flighty comings and goings. Of course, she is bound to fail. Finally, in the last section, we arrive at ground zero in the disquieting war-time childhood of Sadie's mother, 'Erra', otherwise known as Kristina.
Each successive generation of children is subject to intense psychological pressure and tension caused by their familial situations: to control the world, to satisfy their parents, to be loved and to belong. Each responds in their own way; all of them exibit symptoms that we would characterise as disturbing and problematic. Sol has his (now surely infamous) masturbation at Church; Sadie bangs her head against the wall and talks to herself in a disapproving hiss; and Randall fantasizes about bombs falling on JFK airport:
I think about what would happen if a bomb fell on JFK and all these people suddenly found themselves dead or dismembered and flailing in their blood...[I] turn up the sound of the bomber planes as loud as I can in my head and just revel in the screaming the shattering glass the groaning and droning, the high sigh whistle that bombs make as they fall in movies, and then the explosion again and again.
It has long been recognised that mental health problems often arise out of the disparity between the world as we conceive it and the world as it is. Fault Lines posits that the problem is particularly acute for children. As children we're told life is one thing - safe, benevolent and kindly - but we come see it is something else entirely, full of war and death and despair. Each generation of Sol's family suffers under this moment of realisation. They're just beginning to confront newspaper reports with bombs and starving children, and recognise pain in the street; they're just beginning to question how these things correspond with the soft lives they live. How can adults possibly get by day-by-day, knowing these things are happening and, yet, do nothing? We all develop this horror-blindness to some extent as we grow up - it is a necessary safety mechanism, otherwise how would we cope? - but to children it presents a confusing dual-vision. On the one hand, they're safe and sound, on the other they're constantly on the precipice. Randall exibits his confusion about it in his dreams:
That night I dream we're in a coffee shop and a woman has been murdered. She's lying on the floor in a pool of blood with her limbs all akimbo amidst the legs of tables and customers but no one seems to notice her. 'Dad' I say 'Dad, look! There's a dead woman on the floor!' But Dad's busy talking to Mom and they don't pay any attention to me so I start feeling really upset. Just then a waiter arrives in a white uniform, bends down and starts laying white teaclothes flat in the scarlet puddle, they soak up the blood and he wrings them out into a basin. 'Oh,' I say to him, 'so you knew about it!'
There is a body. His parents see the body. But they don't acknowledge that it is there. Someone else cleans it up. It is a devastatingly true insight into how we try to live with ourselves in a violent world.
In a way what is so shocking about these children is not that they suffer and struggle but that they eventually grow up to be (relatively) sane adults; damaged, yes, but still functioning like all the other people in all the streets in the world. Which is really quite frightening. Imagine the implications: that this kind of story is really everyone's story. We're all a little like this, and we're all passing it on to our children. No wonder the world is such a screwy place when we're all so screwed. Such is the legacy of psychoanalysis, I suppose.
But Huston's novel goes deeper than purely domestic mess-ups. Each section of the novel is set against the backdrop of an armed conflict - WWII, the Cold War, the first Lebanese war, the second Gulf war - and images and events of these wars haunt Huston's prose. No wonder, she seems to be saying, that we all grow up somewhat crookedly being daily exposed to the worst excesses of human anger and violence. No wonder Sadie exclaims:
I love books where people die.
Death is one of the only things she can be certain of. No wonder Sol revels in the idea of torture. Violence is the only form of power he has learnt to recongise. It is also the only form of power his parents have been taught to understand, and their parents before them. And so it goes back, Huston seems to say, indefinitely, each generation sewing the seeds for the neurosis of the next. As the children become adults they learn to conceal their budding psychosis, and play their proper parts, but without resolving the emotional legacies of their childhoods. Sadie recongises this in a moment of (highly staged) clarity:
...I think about the theatre idea and wonder if that's basically what everyone does, not only at weddings but all the time: maybe when Grandad listens to his crazies he's playing the role of a psychiatrist and when Miss Kelly hits me with the ruler she's playing the role of the nasty piano teacher; maybe everyone is really somebody else deep down but they all learn their lines and get their diplomas and go through life playing these roles and they get so used to it they just can't stop.
So, no, if you were still in doubt, Fault Lines isn't a jolly novel. It is very rarely funny, and is always verging on the gut-wrenchingly depressing. Still, it succeeds in provoking strong, varied reactions - hate, sympathy, disgust, terror - and though its ideas are simple and have been common currency for decades, they're worth considering again. My only real reservation is its lack of verve. Setting aside the fact that Huston's six year olds speak with the vocabulary of a university graduate and exude a self-posession rarely seen in adults, there is just something missing from the prose. It is clear that Huston wants to write with the fresh zizz of a novelist like Ali Smith - she tries the same tricks, playing with how words are positioned on the page and disregarding the rules of grammar. But she doesn't have the inspiration for it. She is best when she is being plain and straightforward.
Final judgement? It isn't unworthy of its shortlist place; I'm certainly glad that I've read it. I feel pleasantly and cathartically scoured out. If this were the Orange shortlist of my dreams - complete with Darkmans and Winterson's The Stone Gods and Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army - I wouldn't begrudge it the sixth spot with the best of them.