jeremy m. davies, “rose alley”

Jeremy M. Davies
Rose Alley
(Counterpath, 2009)


It’s a bit surprising to me how poorly Perec’s novels are read in this country. Everyone knows of A Void, at least by reputation, though few seem to have actually read it, or to have any idea of the reasons that Perec might have for using a lipogram in that book. There was a smattering of interest in the new edition of Life a User’s Manual, but one didn’t really sense that a lot of people were picking that up with the enthusiasm it deserves; it’s a book that people seem afraid of, which is unjust. One almost never hears anything about W, maybe because it was out of print in English for a while, though it’s an astonishingly powerful book. The book of Perec’s that one sees most often, around New York at least, is Species of Spaces, maybe because it was taken up by architects. But it’s hard to point to much recent American fiction (with the obvious exclusion of Harry Mathews) that bears the influence of Perec, which is odd: the short shelf of his work would seem to be a cookbook full of recipes for potential books.

This, however, is an extremely Perec-y novel, down to its index of locations, people, and works of art; I will admit that I am a sucker for a novel with an index. (Stanley Crawford has also played with that form, in Some Instructions, and of course there’s The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium.) The novel is based around a failed film shot in Paris in 1969; the film, also to be titled Rose Alley, after the spot in London where John Dryden was attacked in 1679 by thugs who may have been hired by the libertine John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, who was upset with Dryden’s verse.

A description of an earlier film by the director and screenwriter of Rose Alley (the film) seems like it could easily describe how Rose Alley (the book) works:

This was a collection of miniatures, thirteen still lifes in thirteen continuous shots, ninety seconds in duration each. An elaborate system of eleven predetermined categories, subcategories, and corresponding lists of objects matching each classification – either likely, unlikely, invented, or inconceivable – was coauthored by Krause and Wexler. (p. 8)

The book has thirteen chapters, all but one based around a character associated with the film; while each chapter takes off from a character, there is no dialogue, and no sense that any action is happening in real time, and stories tend to go backwards (and occasionally forwards) in time. Each chapter is structured around a character, but not in the voice of the character. The reader has the feeling that there’s some logic structuring these episodes, but what, exactly, that logic might be is never entirely clear. One thinks, of course, of Raymond Roussel, who came up with this method of structuring a book (I presume it’s not an accident that “Rose Alley” sounds like “Roussel-y”; other echoes of Roussel can be found through the text) and his followers: there are echoes of the organization of Life a User’s Manual and especially Mathews’s Cigarettes. (Mathews blurbed the book; he also appears obliquely inside the book, when the screenwriter has a poem rejected by Locus Solus, the journal he edited with Ashbery, Koch, and Schuyler.

Chapter 12 is the work’s clinamen: titled “Poet Squab”, it tells the story of Dryden’s quarrel with Rochester through what seems to be collaged text. One function of the book’s index is here revealed: some sources can be gleaned from entries such as “Burnet, Gilbert, 151 (qtd.)“: text from Burnet’s Life of Rochester appears on that page, though Burnet’s name does not. The index also allows the reader to trace narratives through the book: Chapter 6 tells the story of Wilhelmina Princep, a name which hasn’t appeared in the book to that point. Turning to her entry in the index, however, the reader discovers that she’s made eight different appearances in the text under different names. This is a carefully constructed book, and one that demands re-reading.

An index begs the question of who’s constructing it: the shadowy narrator, one presumes, is the only one who might know all of Wilhelmina’s guises, and all of his textual borrowings. The first-person narrator appears in the first sentence of the book and disappears in the last; one might assume that he’s a film historian, tracing out what happened to Rose Alley. Curiously, in the first sentence, he declares that he’s never been to Paris. But we quickly forget the idea of the narrator as a real figure when we move into the minds of the characters themselves in his description of them; by the next paragraph, he’s deep inside of Evelyn Nevers’s head, describing how a saltcellar stands as an analogue for her lover Prosper Sforza in her mind. (One might find Duchamp in that saltcellar; maybe that’s a reach.) This narrator might be an overly presumptuous historian, trying to tie things together; there’s also the hint that the narrator might be the subject of the last chapter, the film’s director Selwyn Wexler. It’s Wexler, we’re told early on, who’s most interested in Dryden and Rochester; in the penultimate chapter, we’re finally given his project for the film:

Wexler’s idea was that the cast and crew would find out as much as they could about their characters and the background of the film. Read Rochester and Dryden. Writer their own dialogue. Even the ones who couldn’t speak English. Myrna would be unnecessary. Everyone would be unnecessary. There wouldn’t be any need for props or sets. Which they didn’t really have anyway. The only necessary thing would be an organizing intelligence. Wexler’s. And the camera. The characters would relate directly to this eye. They would make their own context. (p. 144)

The narrator, perhaps, might be the camera’s eye; the first sentence (and another sentence towards the end of the book, where the narrator says he’s only been to London once) might well be misdirection. In the final chapter, the narrator describes a succession of versions of Rose Alley, all unfinished; the twelfth is the film diaries of Wexler. The thirteenth, we are led to believe, is this book, which invites careful re-reading.

may 20–may 25

Films

  • Poto and Cabengo, directed by Jean-Pierre Gorin
  • Человек с киноаппаратом (Man with a Movie Camera), dir. Dziga Vertov
  • Tout va bien, dir. Jean-Luc Godard & Jean-Pierre Gorin
  • Letter to Jane, dir. Jean-Luc Godard & Jean-Pierre Gorin
  • Taris, roi de l’eau, dir. Jean Vigo

Exhibits

  • “Defining Beauty: Albrecht Dürer at the Morgan,” Morgan Library
  • “Palladio and His Legacy: A Transatlantic Journey,” Morgan Library
  • “Otto Piene: Light Ballet and Fire Paintings, 1957–1967,” Sperone Westwater
  • “Richard Tuttle: “Village V”, 2004,” Sperone Westwater
  • “Marina Abramović: Personal Archaeology,” Sean Kelly Gallery
  • “Greetings from Daddaland: Fluxus, Mail Art and Rubber Stamps,” Maya Stendhal
  • “Helmar Lerski: Transformations Through Light,” Ubu Gallery
  • “Unconscious Unbound: Surrealism in America,” Michael Rosenfeld Gallery
  • “Greater New York,” PS1

may 14–may 19

Books

Films

  • Punishment Park, directed by Peter Watkins
  • The September Issue, directed by R. J. Cutler
  • Stripes, dir. Ivan Reitman
  • Белое солнце пустыни (White Sun of the Desert), dir. Vladimir Motyl
  • Планета бурь (Planet of Storms), dir. Pavel Klushantsev
  • Forbidden Planet, dir. Fred McLeod Wilcox
  • Laviamoci il Cervello (RoGoPaG), dir. Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Passolini & Ugo Gregoretti

Exhibits

  • “Andy Goldsworthy: New York Dirt Water Light,” Galerie Lelong

jon cotner & andy fitch, “ten walks/two talks”

Jon Cotner & Andy Fitch
Ten Walks/Two Talks
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010)


This is a book that I read entirely on public transportation: on the way to a party on Saturday night and making my way back home from a brunch in Brooklyn on Sunday afternoon. This feels wrong, to a certain extent: this is a book, as the title suggests, that’s about walking and talking. It’s difficult to square these pursuits with reading, which for the most part is a solitary activity and one that can’t be done while walking: to read is necessarily to abnegate the outside world. It’s not entirely impossible to combine reading and walking – I remember reading The Recognitions for the first time while on the mile-long walk between work and home one summer – but that was a walk that I’d taken many times over already, and I’m not sure how much I got out of that reading of the book. It was college: maybe it was more performative than not.

This is a small book, consisting of four sections, divided by seasons, each section introduced by a recaptioned reproduction of prints from Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. The first and third contain narratives of five walks from what might be five consecutive days in New York City; told in the first person, the narrators seem to alternate. The second and fourth sections contain transcriptions of two conversations between “J” and “A”, whom we might assume to be the authors: reading these sections, the reader can work out who is responsible for which sections of the walks. Upon scrutiny, the book’s structure becomes less clear: the walks sections are headed “Early Spring” and “Late Spring,” while the talks are “Early Winter” and “Late Winter”. The second talk refers back to the first talk, but the temporal location of the walks is unclear: we might reasonably presume that winter comes before spring, and that the talks are a result of the walks, but there’s no concrete evidence for that. Internal evidence in the walks sections suggest that they happen in March and April of 2005.

It’s in the talks that the project of the book becomes clear: these sections of the book presents a transcription of two conversations, with all the strangeness that appears when oral language becomes written language (as in, for example, Ed Friedman’s The Telephone Book, transcriptions of his telephone conversations). Conversation is a very different thing from a printed interview. Here, for example, is an extract from the first walk, headed “Central Park, 9:10 p.m.”:

J: Sure I’d wanted to cross the park today, but spent hours printing a writing sample for UCSD: a total, maddening loss of time. In fact one guy caught me losing my cool. I explained only printer troubles . . .
A: Let’s move down the mic a bit.
J: make me lose my cool.
A: I got I got caught bowing to the Huddlestone Arch waterfall by this shadowy figure who . . .
J: A scary . . . (p. 23)

Here the mechanics become apparent with the reference to the microphone that’s recording this conversation. The speakers’ voices overlap; punctuation is something that exists in written language, not spoken language. It’s possible there’s a certain amount of self-consciousness that comes with speaking when one knows one is being recorded: subjects bounce back and forth very quickly. (In the second talk, the recorder is switched off at a point when the speakers become aware of those surrounding them; then it is resumed, with the explanation that they’ve moved.) The reader can make sense of most of it with some effort.

Once it becomes apparent how the talks section works, the reader immediately starts wondering about the walks. A representative paragraph, from the last walk; the speaker is near Riverside Park:

A townhouse I otherwise appreciated held patriotic ribbons wrapped around the porch. A dog crossed with its owner calling Stephen, wait! Two Scottish terriers looked less intelligent side-by-side. An old Japanese woman wore a bowler hat. The question Was she attractive? made no sense I was attractive. She needed my gaze and I delivered it. (p. 57)

The speaker here is recording everything he does on his walk; however, this is written language, something not composed in the moment. One can’t very well walk and write at the same time; it’s possible he’s scribbling notes to himself, or using a voice recorder, but his person does seem to be in the moment. One wonders, in passing, if these walks, ostensibly taken alone, were actually taken together, with one of the authors walking and one recording; but that also doesn’t seem like it would pass without notice.

A passage late in the second talk explains the concerns at stake:

A: Yeah as soon as something gets put on paper [Cough] chance I’ll retain it. Or perhaps you know: when the Laotians began to write, which happened, I believe mid-seventies (a French priest designed a print language for them), they lost half . . .
J: Socrates talks about this in the Phaedrus. He refuses to write since it would weaken his memory.
A: Hmmm I’ve heard an implicit anxiety throughout Plato’s work is that, for the first time ap appears the potential for discource to be preserved – to pick up new interpretations the author couldn’t anticipate, interpretation justified by textual proof. And this anxiety leads to conceptions, you know Platonic conceptions of forms (an idealized world; a world more permanent than the written one coming . . .
J: So you think Plato’s disdain for the empirical world derives . . .
A: His . . .
J: [Muffled] books ambiguous?
A: Ambiguous in a way things hadn’t been. A new temporality develops through them, as Plato’s thought becomes our thought. (pp. 82–83.)

The book is an attempt to get back from language what’s lost when put on paper – with the recognition that it has to be a book. What Plato says on the pages of the Phaedrus doesn’t, in the end, matter quite so much as how we internalize it. The discussion then moves to the burning of the Library of Alexandria, and how we presumably lost many of the works of the pre-Socratics there; I was left wondering if the book might not be paradoxically more fragile than the remembered text, though on looking back, that’s not in this book.

In the first talk, we find the reason for the Hiroshige illustrations, in a discussion of how the light brings to mind one of the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo:

. . . . As always in winter months I’ve I value Asian, specifically Japanese art, for training us to recognize the splendor of bare branches.
J: That’s why I go back to Asian poetry and painting, to to track the beauty of each season but not catch myself . . . and escape the trap of longing for summer in the heart of winter. (p. 28)

One senses that this is what this book is attempting to do.

danielle dutton, “attempts at a life”

Danielle Dutton
Attempts at a Life
(Tarpulin Sky, 2007)


The first story in this book, “Jane Eyre,” effectively rewrites that novel as if it had been written by Robert Walser, with the short sentences, friendly appeal to the reader, and self-abasement of his narrators. It’s an exercise in compression: 400 pages become five and a half. Brontë’s book is rendered strange and unfamiliar. One realizes that the opposite process could be applied, and Walser’s short stories could be stretched out to become novels: but a good deal of Walser’s charm comes from his compression: The Assistant and especially The Tanners suffer in comparison to the magic of his shorter works. From the first paragraph, covering the first few chapters of the novel:

I read a lot early in life, and seriously craved love, but was accused of being a liar by my own family and set away to learn to sell my soul to the Lord, and also to knit. Abandoned at school, I befriended an extraordinary girl who soon died like a martyr in a series of consumptive fits. Small but a natural watcher, I lived on through that season of death to learn to speak French and to draw. (p. 3)

This is very funny, of course (the dangling “and also to knit” threatening to tip over the sentence); but the Jane Eyre narrating this story is a very different person from the one who narrates the novel, who couldn’t be imagined telling her story in this way. This much compression implies distance – be it ironic or damaged – a comprehension of one’s life as a written thing. It’s not by accident that one of the few details of Jane Eyre’s early life given above is how much she read: these are bookish pieces, as one might expect from a story rewriting a novel in the voice of another writer. A section named “Some Sources” at the end suggests that Robert Duncan’s “An African Elegy” feeds into “Jane Eyre”; the lines quoted in the poem describe Virginia Woolf, who isn’t mentioned directly in the notes. This is a story, one senses, about the way in which a life can be told; this comes through in the content of the story (a canonical story about the subjection of a woman) but more strongly through the style of the story, in the way that it scrutinizes how women write and are written about.

An argument could be made that these pieces are prose poetry, but there’s an emphasis on narrative that isn’t usually stressed so much in prose poetry. But like prose poetry (I’m thinking of Mallarmé), this is a firmly written language: they couldn’t really exist in spoken form, because they have to exist on the page. This comes out most clearly in the centerpiece of the book, “Everybody’s Autobiography, or Nine Attempts at a Life.” The title, of course, is from Gertrude Stein’s second autobiography, the first that she wrote in her own voice: rather than assuming Alice Toklas’s voice, she became everybody. In this piece there are nine short sections (several only a paragraph long), each with a first-person narrator explaining, in a different way, their life. The notes in the back suggest that it uses material from Jerome Rothenberg anthology of Modernist artists and poets Revolution of the Word, and it seems like the text was collaged from their biographies and works: though nothing quite adds up, and there’s the feeling that the reader is listening to Modernist ghosts reciting their lives. The language is familiar, but strange: the ninth section starts “I was born circa 1877 in Pennsylvania, and died in 1949” (p. 32); the narrator of the fifth, born in Mexico City in 1946, travels to Europe in 1972 and meets a woman who kills herself in 1950.

The language here is interesting: one can’t really say that one was born “circa 1877” (“circa” itself being the sort of word one finds in print more often than one hears it), or narrate stories with paradoxical holes in their plots with the assumption that a listener will believe. One can’t say “I died” because that’s a lie: if the speaker had died, he couldn’t be speaking. There has to be a suspension of disbelief. One could say it, maybe in the context of a play as there’s a suspension of disbelief inherent in the theater, but even there it doesn’t work: the audience would perceive the character as lying. There’s not quite the same convention of realism – we know that what’s happening before us is, in at least one sense, fake, being performed by actors who are not characters. Shakespeare, it’s worth noting, doesn’t show us sixteenth-century England directly. There’s a scene in de Chirico’s novel Hebdomeros where a play is being performed; a fight breaks out, and the viewers are confused as to whether it’s a real fight, the same conundrum that opens Joseph McElroy’s Actress in the House.

On the page, however, “I died” can be said: it’s a received convention of fiction that we can be spoken to by dead people. We accept the characters of a nineteenth-century novel behaving in a way that seems nonsensical because there is that suspension of disbelief: we’re willing to admit the possibility that the contemporaries of the novelist did behave that way. (A historical novel presents something very different, of course.) And in a sense, of course, books are the way dead people talk to us: a dead person can’t write, but someone who wrote can be dead. This is fantastically strange, but we tend to take it for granted.

It’s to Dutton’s credit that she gets at this: not hitting the reader over the head with it, but suggesting. That’s how, in a way, the sources in the back of this little book function: none really gives away what’s going on in the story they ostensibly inform, but they send the reader off to other books. This is a book with a perfect epigraph, from Gertrude Stein’s Lectures in America:

And it is necessary if you are to be really and truly alive it is necessary to be at once talking and listening, doing both things, not as if there were one things, not as if they were two things, but doing them, well if you like, like the motor doing inside and the car moving, they are part of the same thing.

may 8–may 13

Books

Films

  • Viaggio in Italia, directed by Roberto Rossellini
  • Macbeth, dir. Orson Welles
  • The Jerk, dir. Carl Reiner
  • Der schweigende Stern (The Silent Star), dir. Karl Maetzig
  • The Kentucky Fried Movie, dir. John Landis
  • Im Staub der Sterne (In the Dust of the Stars), dir. Gottfried Kolditz

Exhibits

  • “An Italian Journey: Drawings from the Tobey Collection, Correggio to Tiepolo,” Met
  • “Kate Gilmore: Walk the Walk,” Bryant Park

some one is listening while they are talking

“Nothing makes any difference as long as some one is listening while they are talking. If the same person does the talking and the listening why so much the better there is just by so much the greater concentration. One may really indeed say that that is the essence of genius, of being most intensely alive, that is being one who is at the same time talking and listening. It is really that that makes one a genius. And it is necessary to be at once talking and listening, doing both things, not as if there were one thing, not as if they were two things, but doing them, well if you like, like the motor going inside and the car moving, they are part of the same thing.”

(Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America, “Portraits and Repetition,” p. 170. )

nicholson baker, “u and i”

Nicholson Baker
U and I
(Vintage Books, 1991)


Somehow I’ve never read any books by Nicholson Baker, on account of, I think, coming across dismissive reviews of his work when I was in college; and I’ve read very little John Updike since bouncing around some of his shorter things in high school. My not reading Updike is a conscious choice, though an old one, from when I saw deciding which fiction to read in a more confrontational light. Updike, Roth, and Bellow were firmly the establishment at that point, the pricks to be kicked against. My resistance to Bellow has softened over time; I could see liking bits of Roth, though I suspect it will be a while before I get around to reading him; but Updike still seems decidedly uninteresting when considered against the other options. There’s a class association with him in my mind, fair or not: he was writing about other people for other people. Updike is someone I always identified with Harvard: he was, I think, the first novelist I ever recognized by sight in the wild, being marched into the Barker Center to be given some award. Gaddis went to Harvard too, of course, but he had the decency to get kicked out. Updike was the well-behaved novelist.

Baker, on the other hand, has become more interesting over time; I’ve liked the shorter pieces by him that I’ve come across, and I suspect I’d like some of his novels. () This book had the premise that I liked most; it’s not, however, as easily come across in used book stores, being consigned to the hell of belles lettres or essays. Obviously, Amazon obviates this problem; but Baker never seemed necessary enough, especially when there are stacks and stacks of unread books around here. Finding it by accident on a stroll from the Met to Bryant Park seemed right: and here I am, having finished his little book about Updike. I’m glad, perhaps, that I waited for this one: there are a huge number of books mentioned in this book, and I’ve read most of them, which helps, a bit, in understanding what Baker’s getting at. Here is is talking about reading, or not reading, Harold Bloom:

I know about “misprision” only from book reviews – book reviews, not books, being the principal engines of change in the history of thought, and contributing in that necessary role a certain class of distortions to the forward flow by allowing those works which contains plots and arguments that are easily summarized in their reviews to assume a level of cultural bulk and threat that the books themselves may or may not deserve. (p. 64)

This is a book about books and their authors; it is not, directly, a book about reading, partially pointedly so. Baker gives himself the constraint of not re-reading Updike while writing about Updike; so the Updike that appears on the pages of this book is the Updike who appeared in Baker’s mind, not the Updike who appears on the pages of his books. Updike stands for influence; behind him stand others, not least Nabokov. In the opening of the book, Baker draws a distinction between the way we think about dead authors and those who are alive: we can compare ourselves to living authors (as Updike was when Baker wrote), while the dead are preserved in amber (Nabokov then and now):

Readers of the living are always, whether they know it or not, to some degree seing the work through the living writer’s own eyes; feeling for him when he flubs, folding into their reactions to his early work constant subauditional speculations as to whether the writer himself would at this moment wince or nod with approval at some passage in it. But the dead can’t suffer embarrassment by some admission or mistake they have made. We sense this imperviousness and adjust our sympathies accordingly. (p. 10)

A comparison might be drawn to Out of Sheer Rage (1997), in which Geoff Dyer attempts to come to terms with D. H. Lawrence; though maybe Dyer’s difficult-to-find first book,Ways of Telling, about John Berger, might be the most apt comparison. (Does U & I come up in Out of Sheer Rage? It might, but I gave my copy of that book away so I can’t check.) I find Dyer’s account a bit more appealing: that book, ostensibly about Lawrence, is rather a book about not writing and coming to terms with the creative act. This one is about coming to terms with influence: in some ways, a trickier thing.

A case could be made for this book as a work of fiction, starting with the subtitle, “A True Story.” Baker comes off not unlike one of Thomas Bernhard’s demented, ranting narrators, though that writer isn’t mentioned in the text. The book starts with the death of Donald Barthelme, one of Baker’s teachers; Barthelme’s presence hovers over the text, as does the idea, more associated with Barthelme than Updike, of metafiction. A distinct strand of the book follows Baker as he tries to get his book published, talking to his editors at The Atlantic and imagining what his book might look like; he is explicitly concerned, of course, about the progress of his own writing.

You could say that this book hasn’t aged well: I could see how in 1991 this would have been strange and interesting, but a decade of memoirs and writing about writing on the Internet have made this seem overfamiliar. Now we know too much about too many writers. In an odd way, this is a book that would be impossible to write now: because of the Internet, there’s no longer the separation between the author and the reader that was enforced by the time when serious writing was done on typewriters and writers communicated largely through the mail or in person. Writing an email to someone who’s influenced you isn’t qualitatively a different thing than composing a letter; however, it’s much easier, and it only takes a moment’s lack of inhibitions. And in an age of rampant self-Googling, it’s almost become expected that if you write about someone, they’ll end up reading about it. Perhaps it’s better to say that this book is something of a time-capsule: it’s the way we thought about writers twenty years ago.

Do I feel the need to read Updike at the end of this? Not particularly, though I can understand why Baker likes him. But Updike is beside the point, really: this is a book that could have been about any forebear.

henry green, “concluding”

Henry Green
Concluding
(Dalkey Archive; originally 1948)


It’s hard not to tear through the last Henry Green novel I have left, Concluding. Still on the shelf is Surviving, the volume of odds and ends put together by Matthew Yorke. I am glad I went through Caught and Back before Concluding: this book is not so consumed with World War II. Rather, it’s class that concerns Green; this is a usual subject for him, though here it appears in a different sense entirely that what might be expected. No two novels by Green that are entirely similar – Nothing and Doting, maybe, though I’m not sure how well that holds up – but this might be the oddest of them. Maybe this is why I like Green so much: after eight novels, he still surprises.

The plot takes place over a day; the previous night, two girls disappear from a girl’s school. The two administrators of the school, Miss Edge and Miss Baker, are more concerned with scheming on how to get an elderly scientist, Mr. Rock, to leave his house on their grounds; Mr. Rock does not want to leave, as he lives happily with his cat, goose, and pig, named Alice, Ted, and Daisy, respectively, as well as his granddaughter, Elizabeth, who is recovering from a nervous breakdown. At the school, a dance, for Founder’s Day, is to happen that night.

This is a lighter book than Back and Caught, almost pastoral, though this is a pastoral distinctly tinged with shadow. The image of dappled sunlight and shadow is one that comes up repeatedly here; this happens down to the level of the book’s sinuous sentences, which often start in one place and end some place else altogether. Here, Miss Marchbanks, interim administrator, considers what to do:

Extremely short-sighted, she had taken off her spectacles and put these on Miss Edge’s desk as though, in the crisis, at a time when she had been left in charge, she wished to look inwards, to draw on hid reserves, and thus to meet the drain on her resolution which the absence of the girls had opened like an ulcer high under the ribs, where it fluttered, a blood stained dove with tearing claws. (p. 39)

Or this love scene:

“Adams won’t like this,” she said, and turned with a smile which was for him alone to let him take her, and helped his heart find hers by fastening her mouth on his as though she were an octopus that had lost it’s arms to the propellers of a tug, and had only its mouth now with which, in a world of the hunted, to hang onto wrecked spars. (p. 46)

Immediately after this, one of the missing girls is found; but we never entirely learn what happened to her. Nor are her superiors in a hurry to find out.

There is something odd about this book. One notices first that Miss Edge tends to capitalize many of her nouns. At first one assumes this is cod-Victorian emphasis, though one wouldn’t expect that in a book by Green; likewise, the girls of the school all have names starting with “M,” which might be a stylistic choice to show off how interchangeable the girls seem to be. But as the book progresses, it becomes clear that the world that this book takes place in might not be a realistic portrait of Britain in the late 1940s, as one might have assumed from Green’s other books. Halfway through the book, letters arrive for Edge and Baker from a state functionary, directing them that a change has been decided upon, and the girls are to be trained to be professional pig farmers, because there is not enough opportunity for the girls in the “State Service”. We seem to be in a socialist Britain, albeit one that still has a queen. Going back to the beginning, the book reads differently; it becomes strange. We find Mr. Rock explaining to Adams how he got his cottage: “Why, when the State took over from the owner, and founded this Institute to train State Servants, it was even in the Directive that I was to stay in my little place” (p. 7). This doesn’t particularly stick out the first time through: all institutional language is affected and mildly ridiculous.

But here is the reason that Edge and Baker aren’t particularly interested in the girl’s disappearances: it will mean an agony of reports. Elizabeth explains to Mr. Rock, her grandfather, how things are, with particular reference to her lover, one of the girls’ teachers:

“You see, when you’re young and all that,” she went on, “starting in the State Service, because I know, Gapa, I’ve done it, things have so changed since your day, well then, then slightest bad report he gets and he’ll never receive promotion. Never. It isn’t a story, honest. No redress, nothing. And you realise what an Enquiry means, if you appeal against one of these awful Reports. It’s the end. Absolutely. Even if you think you’ve brought it back, it boomerangs back onto you. (p. 143)

An explanation for the other girl’s continued disappearance becomes apparent: Mary was orderly to Edge and Baker and was worn out from working, so she’s run away from the Institute. The delusional Edge considers this possibility and dismisses it:

Because they all knew that attendance on Baker and herself was an honour for which every one of the girls longed, it was just the little extra to be intimately close to them both. Nevertheless, she saw how the whole thing could be made to look if Mary did not come back soon, how black if this latest fantastic story was allowed to creep around. (p. 131)

Another explanation becomes apparent later: the girls, it turns, might not be as innocent (or as interchangeable) as they might appear. But, as the title suggests, nothing is ever concluded.

It’s not entirely surprising that this should turn out to be speculative fiction – the book did appear in the window between Animal Farm and 1984, and one might assume that something was in the air in Britain after the war – but it’s a surprise to be getting this from Green. The politics aren’t particularly surprising: Green never tries to disguise the fact that he was upper class, despite his empathy for the lower classes. It might make sense that this is the book Green wrote after Back; following this, he turned (self-consciously, presumably) to the upper-class trifles of Doting and Nothing, a turn that might be seen as a retreat if those books weren’t so good in their own rights.