If you're ever looking to sample a spot of literary surrealism, then Alice Thompson's fourth novel The Falconer (Two Ravens Press, 2008) might just be the book for you. Not because it is simply odd (although admittedly it is rather odd), but because Thompson's vision of the world, and her mode of narrative, is classically surreal. In this slim volume of just 132 pages you will find all the strange juxtapositions, dislocations and subconscious dreamscapes you could desire. And also the merging of the fantastic and the mundane, and the blurring of the boundaries between humans, landscapes and objects, with some classical intertextuality mixed in for good measure.
The surface plot is almost a potboiler: It is the late 1930s and Iris Tennant has travelled to Glen Almain in the Scottish Highlands under a pseudonym, to become personal assistant to Lord Melfort, the Under-Secretary of War. Although she serves Melfort diligently as he works to appease Germany and stop the the second World War, her real motive for taking a job in such an isolated place is personal. She has come to investigate the mysterious suicide of her younger sister Daphne, Melfort's former secretary, in the Glen's petrified forest a year earlier. In the process, and against her own will, she finds herself drawn into the shadowy lives of Melfort's two reclusive adult sons, Louis and Edward, and of the inexplicable falconer who plies his birds in the clear Highland air with a remorseless and primal efficiency. But there is nothing traditional or prosaic about the way Thompson tells her story.
As with her earlier novels, Justine and Pandora's Box, The Falconer is unconcerned with the mundane mechanics of plot or the ordinary actions of its characters. It is engaged with the subconscious of the story: not the stuff that it is made of, but the opposite, the intangible effects on the psyche of the reader. Just in the way, for example, that surrealist painting is visually compelling (melting pocket watches! spiffy men in bowler hats!) and yet essentially unconcerned with its surface imagery, so The Falconer's meaning, and its power, are located in the subconscious mind of its reader.
The writing is often desperately plain, even abrupt. Thus, when Iris arrives in Glen Almain:
It was a hot day in early August, with the kind of heat that seemed to make the pale blue petals of the harebells tremble. The only signs of life were the flies hovering in the still air. Carrying her suitcase, she began to walk up the glen's road. She passed an old school-house, and noticed a small boy starng at her through the window. He was unnaturally pale, with hair as white as the seeds of a dandilion clock. Two dead falcons were pinned to the front door.
It is a prose style that I found difficult to adjust to, and difficult to like at first, second or even third touch. Its plainness encouraged me to read quickly, while its sparseness demanded that I go slowly to properly appreciate it. Acquaintance with her previous work has taught me that no word of Thompson's is misplaced, and that everything is carefully crafted for a particular effect. Each sentence needs tasting and chewing over, or the substance of the book is lost. The gods know that readerly patience and restraint are not usually in my stable of qualities, so The Falconer was almost, very nearly, a failed read for me. But it definitely rewards a languid approach. Forcing myself to read slowly, I found I intuited new things in Thompson's style. Like, for example, the way that she is a playful writer, creating little linguistic tensions in one sentence only to deflate them in the next, setting up a steady atmospheric rhythm. And the sly way she uses mirroring, echoes and non-sequitors to invest layers of meaning into scenes that look and feel awkward at first glance.
I also learnt to better appreciate the sensual visuals in her writing. I don't like to say The Falconer is a painting in words, because it sounds like such a hideous cliche, but that is essentially what it is, and consciously so. Some books are deeply intertextual, but this one is more 'intervisual', if such a thing can be said. It constantly invokes twentieth century (and earlier) art movements, with small verbal and descriptive clues. So, a stranger on the train is 'abstract', an 'idealised verson of a more primitive self; and a landscape is 'dissected', a 'puzzle made up of small squares'; and an elderly aunt becomes indistinguishable from the inanimate things in her room:
The objects in the room - the rocking-horse, the jack-in-a-box, and the sharp-edged tin cars with their missing wheels - were all becoming part of her. They were where the hard parts of her body stuck out. The room seemed to have become a fabrication of her bones and her walking consciousness.
All of which helps to secure the effect of the book, as a set of scenes and tableau more like a series of paintings than a fictional narrative. As they progress in a dream sequence, it becomes increasingly clear that we are not meant to understand them or respond to them in the way a reader ordinarily would. The book doesn't work at the level of story, despite the apparent promise of the synopsis, which is no doubt why the reviewer for The Scotsman tore it up for 'poor writing, unbelievable dialogue and cardboard characters.' But, to give Thompson her dues, I think the childlike naivity of the writing and the dialogue and the characters are all intentional aspects of the piece. You can't apply the same critical criteria here that you might use with contemporary fiction at large, any more than you can use it to analyse the dream you had last night. Neither the dream nor The Falconer are not about what they appear to be about. You're like to have more joy considering them in the light of the collected works of Freud, or the surrealist galleries in the Tate Modern.
Everything here is a code for something else. Thompson intimates this in the very name of her protagonist. In classical mythology Iris is Hera's messanger, who links the world of the Gods with the world of man, spanning one to the other like a bridge. Thompson's Iris, coming from the real war-shadowed world of the 1930s into the soporific Otherworld of Glen Almain, does the same thing, carrying the reader from the conscious world into an ambiguous dreamscape. The trajectory of Iris' story not how she solves the mystery of her sister's death, because this plot is barely more than an excuse for her journey. Daphne is a cipher or a spell, and her death is more useful as a potent way for Thompson to access Iris' sub-conscious than as a nefarious suicide.
It occurs to me that The Falconer is exactly the type of novel that Stephen Moore is talking about and defending in his chatty fat tome The Novel: An Alternative History to 1600 (which I started the other day). It has none of the 'traditional satisfactions of fictional narrative - believable characters, satisfactory storylines, ephiphanies and the like'. Instead it has the frustrating, perverse insight of a dream, with all the inconsequentiality, discomfort and darkness that are also native to the dreaming self. It is an experiment, in imagery and mythology, which is not always successful or consistent but is always interesting. The key, I think, is not to read it for itself alone; you have to read it for yourself primarily. It is a work of subjective meditation first, and a novel second.