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Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Pretence by Ramsey Campbell -- REVIEW

The Pretence by Ramsey Campbell

A review by Gary Fry

Back in the 1960s, the American sociologist Erving Goffman published a number of books that demonstrated just how constructed everyday life is, how common encounters with other people and the social world around us involves strategic monitoring of behaviour, tacit knowledge of cultural rules, and appropriate presentations of selfhood.

Of course Goffman was only “quantifying” / theorising what sensitive people throughout history have always believed – that human existence is an invention enacted on the hoof, almost like in a stage-play. Here’s some geezer called Shakespeare, back before we modern folk got a handle on all this stuff:
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts […]

Etc, etc.

And so it’s no secret that everyday life is all a bit of an illusion, brought into being by common purpose and mutually convenient consensus. It’s a bit scary when you think about it. You, me and everything around us are lent meaning only because we conspire together during social engagement to make it so. Scary, yes, but not particularly surprising.

Ah, but wait a moment. What if more than that was at risk? What if the very nature of being had the same inherent instability? Well, now we’re getting into more troubling territory. Because you see, in this scenario, not only does society potentially not exist in any organic fashion, but everything does. The mountains around us, music, our families, language – just chemicals and atoms. What do you think? A scarier prospect?

This seems to be the focus of Ramsey Campbell’s latest novella. I say “seems” because with Campbell, nothing is quite transparent, which of course makes for decidedly more satisfying unsettling fiction. There are hints that the experiences, er, experienced by lead character (Derek) Paul Slater are symptoms of the State in which he lives. He’s interrogated by immigration officers, the police, his boss; he believes and timidly insists that he’s more than just an accumulation of demographic facts – isn’t he? Yes, that has to be true: after all, he feels most alive when in the company of his family, his charming wife and two children, or while listening to the original version of Beethoven’s symphony number 6, “The Pastoral”. But as an endless sequence of troubling perceptions involving erasure, blankness, decomposition burden his life, Slater begins to tacitly question the nature and structure of his world.

This is a Campbell novella, and so expect the usual delicate language, the “conspiracy-theory” anagrams, the inexorable accumulation of detail, the ineffably disturbed ancestral background (possibly even the origin of Slater’s experiences). Like his work in The Kind Folk, Campbell cranks up the hallucinatory prose, offering subtle distortions of daily events with relentless defamiliarising descriptions. For example, putting butter on toast actually renders the piece of bread utterly blank. Switching on windscreen wipers brings a world back to life that was previously in danger of becoming nothing at all. The loss of sight from a mountaintop of a distant motorway leaves its onlookers detached from the security of the social, from consensual reality. These and many other common experiences are persistently transformed into threats of negation, of the imminent dissolution of the fabric of existence.

I’ve often thought music the most resilient of the arts. By which I mean, painting can be ineradicably bastardised by the visual media, mangled beyond recognition (the Mona Lisa improves her smile to sell toffees). Similarly, language in the form of great works of fiction has the same vulnerability to postmodern assimilation (when Oliver asks for more, he could be asking for anything – hell, make it toffees again). But music – ah, like a butterfly fluttering across some battlefield, it’s not so easy to capture. Its inherent elusiveness – no imagery or words to grapple with – defies easy corruption. While any fool can wield a paintbrush or a pen, music has its unique demands and remains the domain of human expertise.

Now, I have no idea if Campbell meant it this way – The Pretence is a work of art, and not a textbook, folks – but for me, the choice of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky et al as representatives of human expressions of chemical reality is quite telling. Composing is the mode of creativity both closest to our hearts and furthest from our minds, the hardest to dispel, to “explain away”, to quantify. And so Slater’s struggle to sensibly arrange composers’ CDs in the shop in which he works is like the scientist’s battle with the quantum nature of being, the way it evades categorical definition. He’s told to play music in the store that will please its customers and not necessarily educate them. At home, he watches another work of art made from these works of art – Disney’s Fantasia – and this feeds into his ongoing perception of the world, as all art should, whether original or sensitively adapted (ballet, film, etc). By contrast, the decontextualised derivations of ringtones and commercial jingles (just the tune, just the “good bits”) are persistent irritations – if you will, mounted butterflies.

Basically, I think, (Derek) Paul Slater is, in part, occupying Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, the mass mediation of social referents. But as I implied earlier, with Campbell, there’s something else at play. Not only a fundamental instability in society, but also in the organic cosmos. Reading him makes you feel not only dislocated from everyday life, but also from the chemical tissue that constitutes you and everything around you, whether manmade or natural. He makes you feel like everything might dissolve in a heartbeat.

I suspect I’ll need to read this book another few times to deal with all its delicate complexities (I ask myself what is the significance of the two cars, an Astra and a Viva – both sound stellar, somehow…). What I offer here is a range of thoughts jotted down while reading, in the hope of stimulating you, dear review-reader, to grab a copy and see what you make of the whole, enigmatic affair. You’ll find familiar Campbell themes here: troubles with highly organised daily life (technology is always a big one, the Dark Grinning); visits to schools to see the children perform (see Midnight Sun for similar); a majestic finale on a mountaintop (The Long Lost?). But you’ll also find a completely new weirdness, a command of craft, a refusal to be transparent, and a challenge to those lamebrains who simply enjoy a “good tale, well told.”

Hey, try this instead, losers: it’s a great mystery, artfully narrated.

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