In A Strange Room – Damon Galgut

I readily admit that my knowledge of ‘travel writing’ begins and ends with Bill Bryson.  So when I learned that In A Strange Room is a road novel grounded in the facts of an actual journey across Africa and India, my interest piqued – maybe it would offer me an easy way into the alien landscapes of travel writing via the comfortingly familiar scenery of narrative fiction.  Oh so naive me.  Far from the light-hearted reading I had anticipated, In A Strange Room is a challenging, often abstract novel; an experiment in form that defies genre and isn’t troubled by such mitigating concepts as ‘meaning’ or ‘realism’.  Its simple, sparse prose hides beneath it a veritable smorgasbord of themes, ideas and questions; never has the description ‘still waters run deep’ rung more true.

 

In A Strange Room comprises three short stories (all previously published in The Paris Review), each of which follows a journey made by Damon, an itinerant South African who simultaneously is and isn’t Damon Galgut the author.  The book doesn’t so much blur the boundaries of autobiography and fiction as it does tie them into an indistinguishable knot, hand the knot to the reader and say, with a smug but sad demeanour, ‘good luck untying that one’.  There’s a tension between memory and invention that is never resolved; what did happen and what could have happened is the dichotomy that defines this book, and the key relationship is between the writer and his protagonist alter-ego.  I suppose it’s fitting, given this duality, that my copy was accidentally double-bound with two dust jackets, instead of one.

 

What is immediately striking about In A Strange Room is its stylised mise-en-page.  Each new paragraph is delineated by two blank lines, rather than simple indentation.  Similarly, direct speech is double-spaced and printed without speech marks.  In essence, this layout is exactly the same as (dare I say ‘inspired by’?) Cormac McCarthy’s The Road; there’s a lot of space on each page – much more paper than there is ink. 

As well as looking like The Road, it reads like it too; no scene is longer than a single paragraph, and there are several of these on every page.  Thus the book consists of hundreds of small sketches of narrative; some scenes offer mere physical descriptions of landscapes, others are short philosophical musings, while some relate brief conversations between Damon and the characters he encounters on his travels; the time lapse between each scene may be minutes, or months.

In A Strange Room, then, is characterised by a kind of brevity; you’d be forgiven for believing that the novel is unfinished, a yet-to-be-fleshed-out diary of ideas for some grander project.  The actual writing, however, is exceptionally polished and eloquent; the more I read, the more engrossed I became; the novel’s tiny micro-scenes and sparse dialogue – conversations so short they can barely be said to have happened at all – lend great momentum to the book, and it’s easy to read a hundred pages in one sitting, only to find yourself wondering where the time has gone.

How does such a fast-paced and deconstructed narrative lend itself to character development?  The answer is: not very well.  But this is beside the point; identity (or the lack thereof) is the major theme of the book, and Damon is constantly at pains to represent himself as both a fictional character and real-life narrator, whilst relentlessly questioning the relationship between the two.  To achieve this, the narrative voice is split between the first and third person, even though only one ‘character’ is being represented:

They say I need a visa. I don’t have one.  The guard looks at his passport, looks at him, and beckons him closer.

The ‘I’ and the ‘him’ are, in fact, both referring to the same person, and while this strange technique takes some getting used to, it’s ultimately very effective.  I assume that where Damon’s memories are vivid, he uses the direct first person ‘I’ to tell his story, and that where he fills in the gaps with fiction, he refers to himself (or rather, the fictional version of himself) with the indirect third person ‘he’.

‘Memory is fiction’ Galgut asserts, and if identity is a dominant theme in the novel, then ‘doubling’ is as well.  Every character both is and isn’t Damon Galgut; part remembered and part invented.  Galgut himself wallows in a double identity as both writer and self-cast character.  Damon is lost and Damon wanders.  It’s especially pleasing that the name ‘Damon’ is anagrammatic (a mirror image, even) of the word ‘Nomad’.

There’s no clichéd rationale behind his travels: his journeys are not attempts to ‘find’ himself, or even lose himself; Damon travels because he must: movement is necessity.  For Damon, travel is a de facto expression of his own lack of identity:

The world you’re moving through flows into another one inside, nothing stays divided any more, this stands for that, weather for mood, landscape for feeling, every object is a corresponding inner gesture.

Likewise, the characters we encounter are vague and vespertine; their relationships are characterised more by what isn’t said than by what is.  In the second story, ‘The Lover’, Damon meets and falls in love with a man named Jerome.  The depth of feeling involved is painfully obvious, but neither man will admit to it.  It’s a linguistic cowardice on the part of Damon; he won’t vocalise his feelings because he is too scared to commit to any one version of himself.  But if speech acts have a high price in this novel, then the price of not speaking is even greater:

Jerome, if I can’t make you live in words, it’s not because I don’t remember, no, the opposite is true, you are remembered in me as an endless stirring and turning.  But it’s for this precisely that you must forgive me, because in every story of obsession there is only one character, only one plot.  I am writing about myself alone, it’s all I know, and for this reason I have always failed in every love.

Jerome is Damon’s double; equally as taciturn, yet equally as passionate.  In being commited to paper, every character contains more of Damon than of anyone else. 

In ‘The Follower’ Damon meets and travels with a German man called Reiner.  Reiner seems confident, full of purpose and direction; he makes plans and he follows them.  He appears to be the antithesis of Damon. But the more Damon remembers about Reiner, the more ambiguous Reiner becomes – he too is revealed to be a man of few words and of dithering self-confidence.

 The silence between Reiner and Damon is initially charged with eroticism, but soon breaks down into suspicion, anger, and an unspoken (maybe even imagined) hatred, which forces Damon to abandon his new partner and continue his journey alone.  I suppose what Reiner represents is the potential to be something else; a mirror image which, though the same, is also a reversal:

He will hardly think of Reiner again, and when he does, it is without regret, there are still times, walking on a country road, alone, when he would not be surprised to see a dark figure in the distance, coming towards him.

 

I can’t say whether I liked In A Strange Room or not.  I certainly didn’t dislike it, but more-often-than-not the feeling that I was most struck with was indifference.  It’s not your average ‘road novel’, and it’s definitely intriguing and well-written.  But it can also be frustrating, too brief and afraid to commit itself emotionally.  It’s not about what travel is as much as what travel means; and this combined with a constant struggle between memory and invention makes everything slippery and hard to pin-down.  It’s a book that asks a lot but says very little.  Don’t go into it expecting lavish and accurate descriptions of Africa and India; travel is merely a narrative framework for a novel of self-examination and introspection.  It could cynically be labelled as a vanity project.

I’ve found it very easy to read, but very hard to write about. In A Strange Room defies meaning; more than anything, this novel tells us that the world, other people and even ourselves, are all very difficult understand.

A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made.  You go from one place to another place, and onto somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there.  Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return.

Tomcat

The 2010 Man Booker Prize for Fiction

The more astute among my readers (that’s both of you: hi mum!) may have noticed that the past four novels I’ve written about (One, Two, Three, Four), all have something in common.  No, they weren’t written by Katie Price under the assumed pen-names of Tom McCarthy and Andrea Levy*; nor were they rescued from imminent pulping by an action-hero Judy Finnegan** (Mr and Mrs Madeley, anyone?).  The unifying factor is: they’ve all been longlisted (is that a verb??) for this year’s Man Booker Prize for fiction.

 “What a coincidence!”, I hear you cry; yet be not so amazed, for the action was deliberate.  I’ve set myself the daunting, un-called for and ostensibly pointless task of reading the entire 2010 Booker Prize longlist before the winner is announced on October 12th.  Return here on October the 11th to read my final thoughts on the nominees, as well as my pre-award show gossip and predictions.  Expect it to be an immoderate furore of well-meaning platitudes and civilised propriety.  Unless Peter Carey arrives at the ceremony drunk and naked, tearing pages out  of Helen Dunmore’s The Betrayal and throwing them into the air like so much literary confetti as he declares himself the King of Booker, wearing The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas as a crown.  Don’t look at me that way! It’s possible…Stranger things have happened…

 

The Man Booker Prize, along with the Pulitzer and the Nobel, forms part of the ‘big three’ of literary awards.  It’s a single, annual prize awarded to a full-length novel, in English, written by a citizen of the British Commonwealth (I believe Irish authors are eligible as well).  Despite the patriarchal impression given by its title, both men and women are permitted to enter.  The prefix ‘Man’ is a rider added in 2002 when the Man investment group began to sponsor the prize.

Publishers may enter two novels from their imprint for consideration each year, and books by previous winners are automatically considered.  Judges also reserve the right to ‘call in’ novels which they personally believe are attention-worthy, whether their publishers have entered them into the competition or not.  This year’s most talked-about ‘call in’ is Room by Emma Donoghue, which was requested by the judges before it had even been published; such was the novel’s pre-release hype.

 This year’s booker prize, however, has already become the subject of controversy (that is, if you can call the petty exchanges of bibliophilic dorks ‘controversial’).  The literary press has spent more time discussing what hasn’t been nominated than what has.  And it does strike me as odd that the brilliant Solar by Ian McEwan has been looked-over (surely it couldn’t have been over-looked?) and rejected by the selection committee.  Similarly, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman didn’t make the cut; neither did The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis.  All three are wonderful, accomplished novels; superior, in my opinion, to some of the nominees I’ve thus far encountered.

Perhaps you can infer more from the judges’ omissions than from their inclusions?  These three rejected novels are loaded with risqué, contentious subject matter (global warming, atheism, trans-gender), and it would be easy to accuse the judges of ‘playing it safe’ with their nominations: are they afraid to give the award to a novel that might see them accused of having some kind of agenda? 

Unfortunately for the judges, excluding a book from the longlist is just as much a loaded act of volition as including one.  Maybe they’re deliberately courting controversy by disregarding the more acclaimed books, in a bid to reverse the waning public interest of recent years.  Maybe they’re afraid that nominating Pullman will see them accused of committing to an atheist point of view?  Facile as such concerns may be. 

My greatest fear, however, is that none of these explanations is the correct one; maybe the judges are such terrible arbiters of literary taste that they genuinely  believe Trespass  by Rose Tremain is better than Solar by Ian McEwan.  In which case, they have my pity; subjective as my argument may be.

On the topic of ideal nominations, I would also like to have seen Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds long-listed.  I see no reason why science-fiction should be so disregarded by the Booker judges.  Perhaps giving the nod to a sci-fi novel may challenge the established notion that science-fiction is an esoteric and clichéd genre that lacks depth and literary significance.  Terminal World is insightful, original and very accomplished, and its nomination would only have been a force for good, I feel.

 

Finally, I’d like to make some notes about why I’m doing this.  I’ve always been curious about literary awards.  Don’t get me wrong; I don’t let the judges of such prizes dictate to me my taste in books; but I’m intrigued by the influence such people seem to have over the reading public.  It’s easy to rail against institutions like the Booker prize and accuse such awards of being reductive and popularist.  Yet as I perpetually fail to pin-down and understand my own taste in books, maybe I’ll be helped by gauging the responses of other people: looking outward rather than inwards, for once.

 Last year’s winner Wolf Hall enjoyed a frenzied rise in sales and popular attention once it won, and surely it can only be a good thing that Hilary Mantel’s masterwork finally got the attention it deserves, after spending so many months bothering the lower-regions of the bestsellers list.

I’m also intrigued by all the conspiracy theories that surround the award.  It’s even been suggested by the conservative right of the literary world that, in recent years, the amount of ‘minority’ fiction (gay writing, black writing, Afghan writing etc) nominated and awarded the prize is massively disproportionate to the out-put and quality of the niche that produces it, and that a miss-guided agenda of political correctness is fuelling the engines of the judges.  I’ve not read widely enough to make any comment on this, but it interests me nonetheless.

So, I thought that the only way to make an informed and balanced judgement on the Booker prize would be to do exactly what the judges are doing: read every novel on the longlist and decide for myself which is ‘best’.  I’ve already taken issue with the omission of some of my favourite books of the year, and perhaps my frustration at this will be sated by the process of reading the other nominees.  Also, I like a challenge and it’s nice to have some direction to my reading, for once.

 

It’s also going to be difficult.  Not least because my reading technique is that of subvocalisation; by which I mean that when I read, I imagine the full sound and spacing of words, correct to grammar and rhythm.  I can’t help it; it’s how I’ve always read.  I read in my imagination at the same speed I would read aloud to an audience; hence, for me, books are broadcast in ‘real time’, as it were.

What I’m trying to say is: I’m a slow reader.  Sub-vocal, internalised reading has its advantages: apparently it’s more conducive to analysis and understanding, it’s just damn slow.

But thus far, I’m on target to finish just before the award is announced.  I don’t want to jinx my mission, but I should be successful; pending any major life-changes or disruptive incidents. 

I hope that you enjoy (and have enjoyed) my rolling book-by-book reviews of the nominees. As always, comments and criticism are welcome.  Many thanks for reading.

Tomcat.

*It was, at one point, rumoured that Katie Price’s latest ‘novel’ was being considered for nomination; even though her books are actually written by somebody called Rebecca Farnworth.  Thankfully, this rumour turned out to be un-founded.  I may have to check my sources, but isn’t Jordan winning the Booker prize one of the harbingers of the apocalypse?

**After being named ‘the most powerful people in publishing’ by various sources in recent years, it is constantly rumoured that Richard and Judy are going to become judges of the booker prize.  Apparently, it’s only a matter of time.  God help us.  This, of course, would only fuel the miss-guided notion that quantity of sales is equal to quality of product. Which it isn’t – otherwise more people would be talking about ‘The Wire’ and fewer people would talk about ‘Glee’.