The Booking by Ramsey Campbell
A review by Gary Fry
Ramsey Campbell’s latest novella – his third in recent years, making four in his career – is certainly an elusive work. I’ve read it three times and am still wrestling with its suggestive multiplicity, its layers of meaning and themes.
It begins with a seemingly youngish guy called Kiefer seeking new work in a depleted jobs market. He finds a post at a bookstore owned by a seemingly older chap called Brookes. After losing a key to his girlfriend’s home, Kiefer ends up living in a room above the shop and soon begins his duties alongside the rather eccentric proprietor.
Kiefer is tasked with cataloguing the shop’s books online, with a view to making e-sales. However, Brookes is suspicious of the Internet and refuses to let Kiefer switch on his laptop’s webcam (which problematizes Kiefer’s Skype-like communication with his girlfriend, who is away looking after her parents).
Brookes constantly speculates about a chip which can be planted in people’s heads to give them immediate access to documented material (internalised books, if you like), but he fears what else might be put there.
Customers come and go to buy stock, which Brookes is reluctant to part with. This is just part of the mystery that Kiefer has to unravel. What is at the root of Brookes’ suspicions about surveillance? Why does Brookes belief that insects in the shop harbour observational equipment? Why, when stock is sold, do the same books reappear in the store soon afterwards?
This is far from a conventional thriller. Its suspense arises from enigmatic hints about the true nature of the job which Kiefer has taken on, and interpretation of events is very much up for grabs. I guess I can only detail what I made of its labyrinthine episodes, but these are apt to change with further reflection and maybe even a fourth or fifth rereading (some minor spoilers may follow).
The author withholds the full names of his two characters, but when they’re revealed, the regular Campbell reader will notice an anagrammatic similarity there. Are Kiefer Abloose and Alfie Brookes the same character? If so, what is the nature of their separation?
It’s traditional Campbell territory to explore the intra-psychic realm, how inner-self and social-self interact, and to dramatise the fractures which commonly occur here. And so I’m left wondering whether Kiefer is the virtual self of an older man bewildered by the modern world and all its technologies, a man clinging to what he knows, a realm of knowledge documented in physical books (Brookes regularly suggests that listing his stock online is like potentially losing parts of his mind).
My suspicions were raised during my second reading of the novella, when a plot twist – involving the identity of Kiefer’s girlfriend – alters the nature of an ongoing interaction. Indeed, I feel that the threat which all Brookes’ books present to Kiefer offer further support to this reading. Kiefer has, during the novella, defended the virtual world of e-texts and Internet-stored information.
Is this novella therefore a dramatization of the tensions between two generations, the pliable modern zone of the cyber-world with all its invasive technologies, versus the solid realm of tradition and its immutably printed text?
Towards the end of the book, the non-spatial nature of the Internet appears to have invaded the physical space of the shop. The store has expanded impossibly, occupying more room than is realistically permitted even by neighbouring properties. It is this blurring of real and virtual worlds which makes the novella so elusively disturbing, with each plot development contributing further to the Boolean nature of its two principal characters: either Kiefer is Brookes or Brookes is Kiefer.
By the end of the novella, I feel that this uncertainty is resolved when the police visit the shop and make enquiries about certain events which have occurred earlier: for a brief moment, we get a reflected glimpse of the one remaining character, and it’s not what we’ve been led to believe. Again, this seems to be in favour of my interpretation, but that’s not to say that others won’t pull out something different from this book. That’s the nature of a complex work of art, of course, and there’s no doubt that this delicately and beautifully judged piece of fiction can be described in that way.
Campbell’s technique – the tone of his prose, the ambiguity of his dialogue, the resonance of his imagery – is immaculate throughout, and the carefully selected language only gains in resonance as the book unfolds. For instance, the fractured Skype-like communications between Kiefer and his girlfriend (thematically relevant in themselves, as they illustrate the difficulties involved in engaging in an IT-oriented era) are reduced to fraught dialogue and terse inter-speech descriptions. The woman’s face onscreen breaks apart like horror-show distortions, rendering the ambiguous nature of this relationship appropriately fragile.
This is a pared-down approach which characterises Campbell’s later work, and it’s all the more refined for it. I know that some people miss the “muddiness” of the author’s earlier material, but for me his fiction has never been more elegant and restrained.
So what we have here is a novella super-saturated by interpretative possibilities. I’ve offered my reading above, but I’d be interested to learn what others make of it. The novella’s richness and artfulness make it both a joy and a terror to consume. It’ll get inside you, gnaw at your mind like an implanted chip, and make you wonder whether the book you hold in your hands is real or something other than that, an intangible bundle of text which has the capacity to haunt you forever more.
At any rate, grab a copy now. It’s much more than a single tome. You’ll read it twice or more, on each occasion with a different sensation, a different takeaway conclusion, and a renewed appreciation of Campbell’s great mastery of English prose and multi-layered fiction. I loved every word of it.
Available to preorder at Dark Regions, July 12th 2016: http://www.darkregions.com/news/black-labyrinth-book-iii-the-booking-by-ramsey-campbell-review-copies-distribution-happening-now