Monday, November 29, 2010
I brought these things to Adam Foulds' The Quickening Maze. I also brought the elevated expectations that I associate with Man Booker Prize finalists, not to mention my interest in insanity and asylums. I felt at home within the very first pages. Foulds' prologue sings; it augurs: He'd been sent out to pick firewood from the forest, sticks and timbers wrenched loose in the storm. Light met him as he stepped outside, the living day met him with its details, the scuffling blackbird that had its nest in their apple tree.
It was after that that I lost and never did quite regain my footing in this historical novel purportedly about John Clare, the nature poet, and his time (1837) at an asylum called High Beach. The story has all the makings of greatness—appearances by the poet Alfred Tennyson (who lives nearby because his melancholic brother has been committed), tangents involving forest-inhabiting gypsies, a population of mentally ill and delusional patients, a lonely teen girl and her too-beautiful friend, the wrongly committed and the wrongly empowered, and a starring role by Matthew Allen, who owns the asylum and dabbles in impossible industrial ventures. Though billed as a novel about John Clare "and his vertiginous fall into madness," we see about as much of him as we do the other members of this sprawling cast, and therein, I think, lies the problem. So much cutting in and out within the confines of a relatively short book diffuses, so that what might have a deeply engaging story—a story of a man losing, finding, losing himself—becomes a puzzle of too-many parts, forcing the reader (this reader) to focus primarily on the mapping of characters as opposed to Clare's internal combustion.
I struggled, in other words, to suspend my disbelief. I struggled to believe in these characters as people. I found myself thinking far more about the mechanics of the novel—about how it had been made, about novelistic choices. With the important exception of the prologue, which is gorgeous, I was also far too aware, all the way through, that I was reading, by which I mean: I kept studying the composition of the sentences, rather than losing myself to their sense or meaning.
I am—of course—in the minority with this, and every book has its right and proper audience. Let me hasten to say, finally, that I will absolutely read another Foulds title, for his talent intrigues, as does his capacity to locate a truly interesting place and time in history.