Book Review

Belonging by Ron Butlin

Belonging by Ron Butlin

Jack McCall lives for the moment. If he is unhappy, he moves on. No looking back. Except he does keep a diary of a kind, written in the past tense. This is the biggest mystery of his otherwise unreflective life.

His story begins in March 2003. Jack and girlfriend Anna are caretakers servicing empty chalets high in the Alps. On a whim at the beginning of their relationship, she had suggested that they take the job. It meant they'd be alone for long periods, free to use the luxurious amenities as they please. Life has a pleasing pattern. There are occasional references to radio broadcasts reporting the extreme violence begun in the Middle East that month, and sometimes Anna disturbs the peace herself by talking about their future together - settling down, marriage, children - and, when Jack demurs, accusing him of hidden motives. It leads to violent arguments, but they soon make up.

It would be a glorious, incandescent, mind-expanding, post-craziness fuck ... and afterwards we'd promise each other the world all over again. Letting ourselves be wounded and healed - we called this love. And, for those brief moments, it probably was. Craziness, then forgiveness. More craziness, the more forgiveness. That was love. That was us.

The pattern suits them both but, as the novel starts, the weather is closing in. Heavy snow will soon cut off any escape route. Just before that happens, a red Ferrari arrives. The occupants, a middle-aged French man and a young woman called Thérèse, are also escaping their usual lives. However, the past is like the weather and will descend on them too.

The drama that ensues is reported in Jack's glib, staccato prose. Shit happens. The Ferrari driver is killed in a mysterious incident and the distraught girl becomes a surrogate daughter to the couple, returning home when the weather breaks. At the end of the season, boarding Eurostar, and again on a whim, Jack abandons Anna to seek out Thérèse in Paris. Inevitably they become lovers and, like Anna before her, she suggests they go away together. After an hilariously awkward meeting with her estranged mother and creepy step-father, they settle in a commune in the Spanish countryside. This is where most of the novel takes place. The war in Iraq and the atrocious retaliation in Madrid are distant noises heard on a small radio, even more distant for Jack as he can only make out certain words of Spanish. It's a hazy reminder of the supposed real world and their distance from it, lounging under the sun, getting stoned, bathing naked in rivers, letting the days and weeks merge into one another. Life is elsewhere.

Then it closes in again. The pattern of the Alps is reprised. More violence, more violent sex, another mysterious fatal incident, and then another abandonment: the end of the novel.

All this would be fairly unremarkable were it not for the curious promise held out by the title and the unexplained existence of Jack's narrative. The blurb claims the characters are trying "to put down roots" by "pass[ing] though ice and fire to achieve redemption - and finally, a belonging". Yet the three main characters seem to be less interested in finding peace than in disrupting it. Anna ends a perfect, candle-lit evening with Jack by picking a fight, Thérèse leads Jack on after he and Anna had acted like the parents she had long lost, and later, in the commune, has an affair with another, much older man, while Jack lets himself be seduced by the same man's partner.

In this light, Jack's recourse to writing, and the otherwise facile references to contemporary events, take on a different shade. They become a reminder that destructive violence is lurking close by, something one hears about and perhaps also sees, yet is always just beyond experience, never quite part of life let alone art. Neither can accommodate disasterous violence. The affect of its absence is to make peace unconvincing, to appear even as a solipsistic sham. Only violence comes from the outside. It's why Jack lives for the moment. It could end tomorrow. Yet it's also unsatisfying. It's why his sex life with both Anna and Thérèse develops violent foreplay. Violence returns them to the world.

It's significant that when Jack tells of a particularly violent exchange, or reports his immediate reaction to major discoveries, such as when Anna tells him she is pregnant, he can report only a sudden dizziness, a temporary loss of articulacy.

I marched along, trying my hardest to concentrate: left-right/left-right/left-right … I tried and tried, but couldn't get no further than Anna here/Anna pregnant/Anna here/Anna pregnant…

It's here that violence reveals its impact in the struggle against speechlessness. It's here Jack begins to belong to the world. And it's here we glimpse what the novel might have been had it responded to the paradox that emerges in Jack's controlled narrative. His telling of the story seems to be unproblematic, taken as read. Yet the act of writing is also part of Jack's resistance to belonging. He has found the words to have done with the past, and now he's free to move on.

It would have been more interesting, perhaps even more thrilling, for Jack's struggle to find those words part of the story. His marching and repetition of words and phrases as change begins to impose itself on him offered a chance to explore the experience of ice and fire in the act of telling it, rather than the mere reportage of behaviour. The unacknowledged struggle to accommodate violence suggests that we all belong as much to storytelling - the recourse to distance - as we do to 'the real world'; if not more so. Belonging would then demand a certain loss of the world, the reversal of which would mean the decimation of the safe, articulate self. The struggle to belong properly, where such a loss is not denied, would then be an acknowledgement of that loss and a struggle against that. It might appear as a permanent, discomforting ambivalence with storytelling itself. So, ultimately, belonging would be a literary achievement. Redemption - if that is the word - would then be impossible in a writing that isolates itself, that finds peace in stories, in prose at home with language. It certainly can't be found in such a confident and accomplished novel as this.

-- Reviewed by Stephen Mitchelmore on 11/09/2006

Further Information
ISBN-10: 1852429151
ISBN-13: 9781852429157
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
Publication Date: 17/08/2006
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 256

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