John Burnside - The Dumb House (Vintage, 1998)
I very much admire Burnside as a poet, and many of the themes he addresses in his poetry are present here too, as are some of his turns of phrases, his ways of talking about the world. The only other of his novels that I've read is his most recent, 'The Devil's Footprints'; what they have in common is a solitary narrator, observing with a detached, cynical eye the activities of other people, with whom he may occasionally come into contact, but with whom he rarely interacts on a normal level. Here, even more so than with the ambiguous narrator of TDF (who may or may not have paedophilic feelings towards a girl he runs off with), this virtual misanthropy leads to dangerous courses of action being taken, which often lead to harm for other people, and, one feels, a kind of spiritual betrayal for the narrator too (in contrast to the genuine epiphany experienced at the end of TDF).
It's hard not to see at least some elements of Burnside himself in these figures - they're crafted with too much care, they have too much of a ring of truth about them, they feel as if they emerge from experience (the sort of experience which appears, in flashes, in his collections of poetry). He is anonymous - we only learn his name late on in the book, in a flashback to schooldays where an admired teacher addresses him by name. In a way, it doesn't matter; I never found myself registering him as Luke, but as a presence, the presence that the narrator senses when out on his own, in the garden or on the road - something watching in the bushes, watching, waiting, coldly observing before pouncing with a violence all the more menacing for being premeditated and cold rather than ferociously hot-blooded.
This distanced, dangerous loneliness is not the entire story, however: both narrators share, with Burnside the poet, a deep appreciation for the subtleties of nature, for its changing moods: extreme detail which might normally be overlooked becomes extremely important, and much time is spent on poetic description and philosophical enquiry. It's this that really fleshes out the novel - no, more than this, that provides it with its substance, as the story itself is somewhat bare, a series of events which do not always have a clear narrative arc. Here's just one of many examples, from page 25: a meditation prompted by a visit to Sillbury Hill, where he encounters groups of New-Agers looking at a crop circle.
While I was there, I felt there was nothing to stop me from getting into the car and driving away, back towards the west, moving from one crop disturbance to the next, pretending I was solving the mystery, growing into it, vanishing from the world I had inhabited all my life. I could have become someone else as easily as that; maybe I could even have become the person I had suspected all along, less clearly defined, but also less contained. I could make a game of my own life, like those people I had read about in magazines – the woman who disappears on her way home from work; the man who steps out one summer morning to buy a newspaper, or a loaf of bread, and never returns. He cannot have gone far, dressed as he is in a shirt and a pair of jeans; he only has five pounds in his pocket, but nobody ever sees him again.Note the exquisitely balanced tone – humour (“he is an ordinary man, quite sane, no known problems – or nothing serious at least” – no, nothing serious enough except it means he vanishes without trace, dressed in only a shirt and a pair of jeans, with £5 in his pocket) the sinister (perhaps they didn’t choose to disappear, but were killed by someone like the narrator), the mysterious and elusive. It has a peculiarly beguiling quality unique to Burnside’s writing – it draws one in, and one ends up pondering on things that it would never have entered one’s head to think about for. Burnside draws us into the world of the forgotten, the unknown, and makes us inhabit it as naturally as he does, and as his narrator does.
In terms of plot, Burnside's starting point is a Persian myth, which describes how Akbar the Great built a palace to be filled with newborn children, attended only by mutes, in order to learn whether language is innate or acquired. None of the children learned to speak, and in the end, the 'experiment' was inconclusive - the legend does not say what happened to the children, only informing us that the building became known as Gang Mahal (The Dumb House). In the novel, the narrator becomes convinced that, by discovering the roots of language, he can discover the human soul: earlier, as a child/teenager, he tries this by dissections, by cruelly murdering animals, cutting them open and watching the life flow out of them to see if he can catch a glimpse of something passing out (the soul). Of course, he never gets very far, and he decides to try a more drastic experiment, which is similarly doomed to failure, only leading him to take life in a destructive and futile quest for personal satisfaction: the philosopher's quest for the roots of knowledge and ideas, for some sort of elixir of life, taken too far, perhaps. Later, he will kick a tramp to near-death and set him on fire; break the fingers of a mute child; and poison his own twin children, whom he has treated as laboratory rats.
(Below - The tomb of Akbar the Great.
It is this latter case that forms the centre of the book, which everything else leads up to. What starts out as "the single most important experiment that a human being can perform: to find the locus of the soul, the one gift that sets us apart from the animals" evolves into a sadistic, bizarre exercise whereby the narrator, in a twisted variant on Akbar the Great's experiment, imprisons his own twin children in a locked room, depriving them of language, and playing them only music over speakers. When they develop what seems to be a musical language of their own, constantly singing, improvising to one another, their gaoler feels excluded and becomes fearful: at one moment, they somehow manage to escape and stand, smiling, watching him asleep, at the door to his bedroom, like the knowing, innocent children we're all familiar with from horror fiction and films (of which the ultimate example is surely the angelic child who turns out to be the anti-Christ in human form, Damian from 'The Omen'). Unsure what to do, he first cuts out their larynxes to silence them (perhaps the most uncomfortable moment of an often very unpleasant book), then poisons the food he brings them. The novel ends with him taking in a desperate, probably instance, alcoholic woman (the mother of the mute child whose fingers he had broken), whom he has earlier had a sexual relationship with in the course of his research into the roots of language, and the cases of mute children. She seems to have taken the place of the mute, homeless woman who has born him the twins, and it is implied that the whole cycle will begin again. The final sentence of the novel comes with a shudder: he locks the woman in his mother's old room, prompting him to remark: "I experienced a sudden thrill of joy, as if I were locking away some hidden treasure that I'd been waiting years to find, the one thing I had never expected: a necessary gift, an indisputable moment of divine grace."
One thread seems to be the inability of science to cope with life's unknowable mysteries: the narrator writes with a poet's language, with many metaphysical passages on the nature of language, man's relation to the world, to nature and to other humans, the relation between life and death, and the existence of the soul, but, every few pages, keeps referring back to his "experiment," reminding himself of the objective, scientific nature of his 'research' into the ephemeral. At one point he relates a story of how, at school, he criticises a teacher for talking about the soul, something which is beyond the knowledge of science, something far more important than any poet's vague ideas of something beyond explanation. But this is clearly a paradoxical view, considering his own poetic inclinations, and Burnside clearly shows him up for the deluded psycopath he essentially is. In the end, perhaps the 'moral' of the novel is that we shouldn't probe too far into the unknowable, else we risk madness in trying to grasp something we can never reach. Just as the religious man's search for answers in religious truths and laws can lead to violence and intolerance, the destruction of human life, so can the scientific man's search for objective fact in realms that are far beyond factual explanation. That would seem to fit very much with Burnside's agnosticism, and whatever we think of such a conclusion, the novel is filled with moments of striking and thought-provoking meditation on these important issues.
Another thread would be the unknowability of evil, which is, we have to conclude, what the narrator is - of course, there are strong suggestions of motive: the strong mother, weak and distant father (unloved by both son and wife), lack of friends, lonely wandering along with little supervision, abusive encounter with a paedophile (p.17-18 – skimmed over so quickly that one almost forgets it has been mentioned). Simplistically, he has a Norman Bates mother-fixation - but, like Bates, he is not merely a crazy psycho (pardon the pun); he is intellectually attractive, sees beneath the surface of things, notices truths hovering in unlikely places(very similar to those that Burnside the poet notices), and can be dangerously beguiling. This is what makes him so troubling: Luke has a cold logic. His choices seem to be, except at the most extreme moments (such as when he breaks a child's fingers, or the chilling last 20-30 pages of the book, detailing his 'experiment', and treatment of the twins as isolated laboratory animals), natural steps in an inexorable series of events. These steps, these acts of violence, are described as if from a distance, as acts meditated on rather than as in-the-moment - unlike Camus' stranger, who kills the Arab in a moment of what one could, I suppose, call temporary madness, blinded by the sun and who knows what else, Burnside's Luke is able to reflect when kicking the tramp to death, on how the body becomes a lump of meat, how it is jarred out of place, broken from its perfection into something non-human - and reflect in this without a trace of remorse or regret or revulsion, but with a curious, detached, almost apathetic curiosity. While the apparent ‘reasonableness’ of what he does disturbingly show how close ‘normality’ is to evil, shows convincingly how someone could do such terrible things and believe that what he is doing is normal, Luke is obviously not normal. There is a total absence of objective morality, the worry some of us non-scientists may share about scientists who become too disengaged emotionally, who, in probing for the meaning of reality, end up going beyond it into an abstract world of facts and figures, experiments and hypotheses. In this sense Burnside's novel offers a probing critique and a valuable corrective. Unlike many other poets, he was a scientist himself, and he has a clear understanding of the traditionally opposed realms of science and art, recognizing the limitations and dangers and singular beauties of both.
It is a very disturbing book, quite nasty in places, perhaps overly so, and one that left me with a curious feeling when I had finished, which I can best describe in religious terms, as 'unclean.' For all its poetic and philosophic grace and depth, it has a nasty, sordid, reality about which is very modern and rather tasteless. One can't help feeling that a slightly less unpleasant theme might be more to the point of Burnside's gift for language; or maybe he reserves that for his poetry. I'm probably being squeamish, but it makes it an immensely hard book to like, much less love. I feel that it's an important book, and one that I would recommend having a look at, but I would find it hard, myself, to read the whole thing through again.